By Julia Park Tracey
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee died in her sleep last night and left the literary world a sadder place today. While many of Lee’s fans hold lifelong book-crushes on her heroic character, Atticus Finch, it was Lee herself for whom I had more affinity. I had only seen snippets of the award-winning film based on her book, To Kill a Mockingbird, until this past summer. When Go Set a Watchman, the “prequel” to TKAM (GSAW was an earlier draft, and quite different from TKAM) came out in summer 2015, I read both (my reviews are here and here), and finally came to know the Lee-as-storyteller everyone loved.
I read Lee’s unofficial biography several years ago about her experience writing and publishing TKAM, about the nature of her friendship with writer and friend Truman Capote, her disinclination to meet new people, and the “sophomore slump” that often hits young, successful authors who feel unequal to producing as fine a work again. The author’s apparent anxiety and inability to produce another such as TKAM seems to have haunted her for life. For every time TKAM came up in conversation, in the news, or the movie played on television, or Gregory Peck died, whatever, the press was at Lee’s door again, demanding that she tell her story, asking when the next book was coming. There’s such a thing as synecdoche, where Mockingbird became Harper Lee, or metonymy, where Harper Lee became the South. She was neither her first published book, nor representative of all Southern women, nor Southern writers, nor Southern folks in general. She was herself, a gifted, brilliant writer, upon whom the pressures of expectation and the gaze of millions weighed heavily.
I realize there were issues with the release of Lee’s first draft/second book. There were claims of elder abuse and mixed opinions about the role of Lee’s sister as protector or as censor. History will judge those who abused Lee’s trust, I’m sure. And the argument still rages, at least in literary halls, about whether Atticus was a racist, and now, over which of the two Scout novels is true, or truer. It’s my opinion that Go Set a Watchman is as beautifully true as To Kill a Mockingbird, and as brutally heartbreaking.
Today, after Nelle Harper Lee slipped into her own dark night, all we have are the words she left us by which to remember her. I’m sorry for the loss of her light, but I’m glad she was strong enough to write the two novels, the two visions of her small town Alabama, her eyes-on-the-South. I’m sorry the anxiety was so crippling; that is a story I know all too well. I’m grateful for her example of writing, unknown, and I’m glad she, living under the scrutiny of the paparazzi and the curious, wrapped herself in the invisibility cloak and lived quietly. Why didn’t she write another book? Maybe she didn’t want to. Why didn’t she tell us more about herself? Why should she? Why did she owe us any more than she had already given?
It is coincidental to the release of her second (first) book last summer that there was an assassination of nine African-Americans in Charleston, SC, and the Confederate flag at last began to come down. The needle has moved, and continues to move, on the topic of race—white America is finally starting to awaken to the fact that black lives matter. Both of Lee’s novels helped to make that happen, to jiggle the handle a bit and get the conversation going. In that sense, Lee fulfills the prophet’s words in a way she perhaps did not even foresee.
“For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees.” Isaiah 21:6
Photo credit: “To Kill a Mocking Girl” by Bruna Ferrara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.