Happy Birthday to Harper Lee! She authored an instant classic, almost every American child has read in grade school. Her two novels are the at top of my favorites list. To me, Harper Lee’s life and legacy is remarkable and unremarkable at the same time. She was, by all accounts, a quiet and polite woman. But she managed to rile up the whole country twice in her lifetime.
Born Nelle Harper Lee, on April 28, 1926, Harper dropped her first name so people wouldn’t misspell her name as Nellie. While at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, she was the school newspaper editor. She quit as editor her junior year to pursue the study of law. After a Summer at Oxford, she returned to Tuscaloosa, and quit law school to go back to writing. She soon moved to New York City.
In New York, Lee worked as a ticket agent while writing her first novel. The publisher rejected her book but asked Harper to rewrite her novel, focusing instead, on the main character’s childhood. While shaping the rewrite, Harper Lee was taken under the wing of a Broadway composer, who supported her financially for a year.
Harper Lee was a life-long friend of Truman Capote, who is personified in her character Dill. Before publishing her rewrite, she traveled to Kansas with Capote and helped investigate a small-town murder for the New Yorker. When Capote’s personality didn’t mesh with the reserved town’s population, Lee was invaluable in gaining the confidences of the families of the murder victims and town folk.
In July 1960, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill A Mockingbird” was finally published. By 1962 the book had become a movie, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus. The movie was nominated for eight Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars. Lee’s American classic has since been translated into forty languages and still sells over a million copies a year.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” is simply a coming of age story of a young girl. It came out at a time of struggle for America’s identity and future. It offers the hope of decent white men seeking justice, within a racist and sexist culture, and the hope that the next generation may be color blind.
The story of a tomboy and her father’s defense of an African American man in Alabama, was so controversial in 1960, that Virginia’s Board of Education called it “immoral.” And as recently 2017, it was pulled from school reading lists and libraries in Biloxi, Mississippi. The current contention is related to unspecified “language” in the book, that makes some in their communities uncomfortable.
Once the 1970’s arrived, Lee had retreated from public life, splitting her time between New York and a life with her sister in Alabama.
Towards the end of her life, the quiet Harper Lee created more controversy. In 2015, the rejected version of “Mockingbird,” was discovered and published as “Go Set A Watchman.” It’s a very different version of the same tale. “Watchman” came out to divided reviews. Many people, like Berkeley Breathed of Bloom County fame, were aghast at the portrayal of their childhood hero, Atticus Finch.
In “Watchman”, a grown Jean Louise Finch leaves New York City each summer to catch up with her family and hometown. During this particular visit, as the young, independent woman reminisces about her childhood trials and fond memories, the veil of hero worship is removed for Scout. In a way, Scout had the luxury of being raised without a mother. Because a mother at this time would have taught Jean Louise acceptance of her stifled culture. The older Scout learns that what she remembers of her childhood hero, Atticus, is all a lie. The man she thought was ethical and moral is a closet racist, refusing to accept the changes being forced upon his way of life by the Supreme Court. His public show of judicial fairness hides his true motives.
If “To Kill A Mockingbird” upset people in 1960, then certainly America wasn’t ready for the liberated woman’s opinion in “Go Set A Watchman.” To me “Watchman” is the perfect modern retell of the more palatable “Mockingbird.” Over fifty years later, our country publicly strives for equality, but right under the surface, forces work to halt progress and pull us backward to our expected roles. We no longer look through the innocent eyes of a child, who worships their forefathers. We do not look at the past with sentimentality and naivety. And we aren’t happy about losing our naive optimism.
There is some debate as to whether Harper Lee truly wanted “Go Set A Watchman” published. Some say she loved the reactions to the book. And others think publishers took advantage of Lee’s age and failing health. While many appreciate the book as a study into the creative process, more are upset their cherished childhood hero has been shattered. To me, the book is a poetic end to a career whose work was and always will be debated.
Harper Lee died, never ending the controversy, on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89.
Source & Photo Source: Biography.com & Time.com