Honoring Harper Lee: Public Boo Radley, Private Beloved Friend
by Sophie Cloherty on Friday, February 26th, 2016
On February 19th in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee passed away in her sleep at the age of 89.
When I was twelve years old I read To Kill a Mockingbird and met my first literary hero: Atticus Finch. The brave heart of Harper Lee’s renowned novel has settled godlike into the hearts of millions since the book’s first publication in 1960. Lee tells the story of Atticus, a white lawyer who comes to the defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1960’s Alabama. It can be argued that much of the public’s and my own idyllic perception of Atticus—defender of justice, single father, social pariah of a corrupt system—is the result of the narrative style of the story, told through the lens of Atticus’ cheeky young daughter, Scout.
Much like her characters, Harper Lee herself has ascended into an idyllic literary guise. After gifting her novel to the American public on the eve of the Civil Rights movement, she spent the rest of her life actively out of the public eye. Her wish for anonymity seemed to grant her an even more ethereal and intriguing image.
As an endlessly impressionable 12 year old, for me, Lee was quick to become my quickest example of the power of the pen, not just for her easy and warm hearted prose and her seamless ability to make her readers think critically without the realization of doing any thinking at all, but more so for her blunt and candid courage in the context of her time. Many historians hold that Lee’s voice had an essential influence on the public perception of racial issues in the key subsequent decades—that her words perhaps encouraged the Atticus’ of the world to reveal themselves. The novel was essential in forcing Americans to look directly in the face of their own deep rooted prejudices. The book’s institution in many educational systems continually introduces often difficult conversations of race and forces the nation and the world to acknowledge the past as a way in which to move towards a better present.
One can only imagine the incredible thud that was heard nation and world wide just last year when, after 55 years since her first and only book, Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, hit bookshelves. The media frenzy around the release of the novel drew questions concerning why now, at the age of 88, Lee permitted the release. The novel is a self-dubbed sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but is set years after the original plot as Scout returns to her hometown no longer the spunky tomboy that won our hearts, but rather a young woman living in New York. According to The New York Times, the novel represents what was once the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird–a draft originally rejected by publishers.
In May of last year I found Go Set A Watchman one late night, left open on a kitchen table. Halfway through I closed its pages out of a selfish wish to preserve childhood heroes. In the sequel, Scout returns to an aging Atticus and she begins to see the pervading dark underbelly of the town she once called home. Much like mine, her idyllic image of Atticus is shattered by a sudden hyper awareness of her father’s racism and prejudice ideology.
In retrospect I believe I closed Go Set A Watchman not only out of a wish to preserve my first literary hero, but to preserve his author as well. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee had so easily convinced me of the possibility of a character so pure and righteous he could do no wrong. Yet here, she had suddenly changed her mind. I felt just as Scout, abhorred by the realization that her father, that Atticus’s character, was that of a person—ambivalent, multi-dimensional. My Atticus was pure and righteous to a fault, unshaken in his beliefs, impossibly tolerant in his beliefs, immortal. I wanted desperately to believe Lee had not tricked me into believing in a character that did not exist. The writing itself lacked the music and the lyricism of To Kill a Mockingbird. A part of me questioned the release of the novel at such a time in her life and closed the pages out of a wish to preserve and honor what once was. I had read too far, however, and both Atticus and Lee descended for me from their god-like platforms—yet I have found, they have done so for the better. In my new view of Atticus I found the inevitability of human flaws, in Lee I found a human being, a dedicated author with a story to tell, committed to getting it right one draft at a time.
Regarding Lee’s aversion to the spotlight, Wayne Flynt, a dear friend of Lee’s said in an interview with NPR that Lee was “neither an introvert nor shy,” but instead that she was simply “quite content within herself.” Reading these words reminded me how easily idols can be formed. The mythology that is quick to envelope men and women who have created words that speak to large groups can so easily shield us from what we so loved in the first place: the candid courage of a human being. Reading Lee’s obituary I thought how nice it was to think that one can leave their mark on the world just the same. The shocking and questionable publication of the first draft of a remarkable novel in no way diminishes the value of the original masterpiece. It’s even more inspiring that a woman who can write flat first drafts can yet publish words heard ‘round the world.
In a public statement after Harper Lee’s death, the late author’s nephew, Hank Connor, remembered her not as any kind of Boo Radley figure but rather as “a devoted friend to many good people who touched her life, and a generous soul.” Harper Lee need not be mourned, for the simple reason she has left behind precisely what she intended. She will continue to gift the 12 year olds of the world with their first literary hero, continue to open up discussions of race in our nation, continue to remind us through her literature and her own history that there is nothing at all insignificant about a life.
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