Harper Lee: 1926-2016

Harper Lee, the internationally best-selling author of To Kill A Mockingbird, passed away on Friday 19th February at the age of 89. She spent her entire life in Monroeville, Alabama, and for the most part in the same house in which she died in her sleep, after enjoying a life best characterised by two words: Mockingbird and solitude.

First published in 1960, Mockingbird has been translated into forty languages, been cited by thousands of students as the motivation behind their choice to study law, and succeeded in establishing itself as arguably the best post-war American novel. Apart from the book Go Set A Watchman, released amidst controversy almost exactly one year ago, Mockingbird was the only text Lee ever published. Although, after completing To Kill a Mockingbird, she was also instrumental in assisting Truman Capote to research and write his hugely influential In Cold Blood in 1966.

Harper Lee was famous for her love of solitude; she gave three interviews during her lifetime. She rarely left Alabama for longer than two weeks at a time. At a 2007 ceremony inducting four members into the Alabama Academy of Honor, the by-then-octogenarian-author responded to an invite to address the audience by retorting, ‘Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool’.

In her final interview transcript, it was reported that Lee felt she had ‘said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again’. Anyone who has read Mockingbird will feel the pull of a certain temptation: to identify Harper Lee with Scout, the little girl who is closest to a narrator in the book series. But, given the life Lee lived and the solitude she craved, perhaps it would be more accurate to identify the author with Boo Radley. Boo is a reclusive, awkward neighbour of Scout’s in Mockingbird, who lives over the street and prefers communicating with knots in a line of string than holding direct conversation.

Rather sadly, it’s impossible to write about Harper Lee’s literary output without mentioning the 2015 release, Go Set A Watchman. After a manuscript for the book was discovered in Lee’s home, her publisher went ahead in transforming the notes into a 200-page novel. The book is set two decades after the time depicted in Mockingbird, depicting far greater moral complexity than the more diluted moral message that fuelled the 1960 masterpiece. Investigations were launched into whether Lee was competent enough to consent to the publishing of Go Set A Watchman. Though claims of elderly abuse or coercion were unfounded according to an Alabama court, this decision has been contested.

The book isn’t a pleasure to read. Slow at the start, and fragmented in its narrative, the 2015 release wreaks of commercial opportunism. The result adds colour to, but hardly supersedes, the deep thoughts about race and class in early 20th Century America for which Mockingbird is rightly cherished.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a rare example of a novel which played a major role in contributing to social change. Agitating for respect for the civil and democratic rights of black people – and the rights of anyone who is mistreated by the law – the book is a political rallying cry. But, more importantly, the novel is aesthetically outstanding. Though written in colloquial language and mostly led by speech rather than lyrical descriptions, Mockingbird contains many subtle literary devices that combine to generate a beautiful work of literature. Subtle turns of phrase, synaesthesia, unexpected similes, Biblical allusions: they’re all in there, and deployed with nuance and precision. Mockingbird might be a great liberal text. But, far more than that, it’s a profound literary achievement. It warrants the respect it has so abundantly received and will doubtless continue to receive. Harper Lee can and should be remembered for giving the world a dazzling work of art.

Image: Lee being awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom (credit: Eric Draper)

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