Every author dreams of it, but few will ever get to live it – writing a seminal book that not only receives accolades but in some way or other changes the world. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is such a book, and she goes down in literary and American history as someone who made a real difference in many lives.
When I heard Harper Lee had died at age 89, I felt genuine sadness for the loss of one of my literary heroes. While I have enjoyed the works of many authors over the years, no book has ever affected me the way Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has. It changed my perceptions and understandings of the world and how people are mistreated and how childhood is a precious thing never to be forsaken by adults.
Many people who have read this book have said similar things. For a majority of readers the character that had the most impact on them was Atticus Finch, who later would be played by Gregory Peck in a towering performance in the movie that earned him an Oscar. It’s hard to disagree with those people because Atticus sets an example for all to follow; however, the character that changed my way of thinking was the first person narrator, Atticus’s daughter Scout.
Reading the book for the first time because I had to do so for a high school English class, I was not all that into it since it was an assignment; however, after the first page I was hooked. There was something so sincere, so innocent, yet so precise and honest about Scout’s narration that I was impelled to read on.
While some other kids in my class were complaining about the story being too long or “boring” because it was about the South they didn’t know or understand, this New York City boy savored reading about the old town of Maycomb with its tea drinking ladies covered in sweaty talcum powder. Of course, at the heart of the story there was much more – the burning truth of justice for all no matter what color, race, or creed.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I remember when we started talking about the book in class that my teacher wrote this quotation from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the blackboard. He asked us what we thought that meant, and we were all quiet – you could hear the proverbial pin drop. Looking back on it now I think we all understood what it meant and knew the man who wrote it, but we were afraid to respond and to accept the implications of what that meant in our lives. We all lived in a bubble – even if it was a NYC bubble – and this quotation and the book we were about to read would burst it.
There is injustice all the time, and as I read the book I saw it in my school, in my neighborhood, and in my city. In the book Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, is treated poorly and the white men in town want to lynch him without a trial. Scout’s father stands up for him and, as a lawyer, defends him in a memorable court case even though the prospect of a white jury acquitting the man is slim to none. I understood that the world is not a fair place after reading this book, but I also came to realize it was up to me to try to work to change that.
Many years later I became a teacher and I would have to assign this book that I loved to my classes. Needless to say that I saw kids just like I had been getting their bubbles popped. Some would not accept the message of the book, but most were won over by the amazing prose that Harper Lee had given us – a gift that has truly kept on giving over the 56 years since the book was published.
I’ve read stories about Harper Lee and how she never wrote again. An earlier book, Go Set a Watchman, was published last year to mixed reviews. It contained some of the same characters as Mockingbird, but told a different story and disappointed people. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to read it because the original book is mine forever, and I wanted nothing ruining that for me.
I think I understand what happened to Lee and why she either couldn’t or wouldn’t write another book. When something as earthshaking as To Kill a Mockingbird is written (it took her two years to write it and a number of revisions before it was published), there is a personal toll taken, an exhaustion, and there should be no illusions that writing is easy. As Hemingway once said, it’s the hardest work after heavy lifting.
If her first book hadn’t been an immediate critical and financial success, things could have been different. Lee may have put the shoulder to the wheel and started another book, but with all the excitement and scrutiny there also came a terrible price – how do you ever follow up and match the precedent you have already set?
Some writers peak with a great book and then can never duplicate that success. They write subsequent books that are never as powerful or memorable, and we are tempted to say they should have stopped while they were ahead. No one can ever say that about Harper Lee – she wrote that one great novel and let it stand. I think there is tremendous courage in that, an integrity worthy of her great character Atticus Finch himself.
When my daughter had to read the book for school, we talked about it and then I read it again as she read it. The test of a truly good book is that you can read it many times and enjoy it again and again, but also that each time you come away with something new. I had read it as a student and as a teacher but never as a father.
This time Atticus became my favorite character, and his strength and tenacity are almost as impressive as his love and care for his children. When he explains to Scout why he took on Robinson’s case, I wept because his deeply loving and passionate words are unforgettable:
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see through it no matter what.
Atticus knew during the entire trial that Tom would be found guilty, but he fought the good fight because it was the right thing to do, and he wanted his children to know that. My daughter and I had many discussions about the book, and in the end she cried because she truly understood why you don’t kill a mockingbird, and that is a gift that will keep on giving in her life.
Harper Lee is gone but she left behind a book that will keep on changing lives. Her indelible story is more than enough of a legacy – she knew it and we all do too. Rest in peace, Harper Lee.
Photo Credits: CNN, Fox News