Few authors have touched me like Harper Lee, best known for her influential book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee died this last Friday at 89 years old. Her passing has started a conversation across the world about the themes and characters she first introduced to us in 1960.
In the pages of her debut novel we found a story that still has influence today. For many of us, reading the book in middle school was the first time in the classroom our teachers explicitly addressed race, gender roles, and how the legal system works—and doesn’t. She presented these difficult and emotionally charged issues through the eyes of a child in the story, and watching Scout wrestle with the events rocking her small, Southern town helped us start to grapple with big ideas about justice and prejudice.
Reactions after her death have come from fellow authors, her publisher, family and friends, and the legions of fans. Lee’s nephew and family spokesperson, Hank Conner, summed up the feelings of many eloquently: “This is a sad day for our family. America and the world knew Harper Lee as one of the last century’s most beloved authors. We knew her as Nelle Harper Lee, a loving member of our family, a devoted friend to the many good people who touched her life, and a generous soul in our community and our state. We will miss her dearly.”
It Takes a Special Woman to Shun Fame
Lee was more than the sum of her words, as powerful as they were. She was a complex, private woman and what she didn’t do in life is really as notable as what she did do. Lee did not publish widely after the immediate success of her first book. When asked why, she said, “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
From all reports, Lee spent most of her life living quietly in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. She assisted her close friend Truman Capote in preparing his book, “In Cold Blood” and she researched other local crimes, although she never completed her manuscripts on them. She refused interviews and shunned publicity, instead spending her time with her family and community.
Late in Lee’s life, a new work of hers was released, to deep controversy. Some people even asked, “Did Go Set a Watchman spoil Harper Lee’s literary legacy?” If her legacy was one perfect novel, this question makes sense. But a book, quite possibly sold once she no longer was able to understand what was happening, isn’t more weighty than the strong, cultural-shaping work she initially shared with the world.
Nor should this shift the focus from another important act of Lee’s: standing against censorship and attempts to remove important works of cultural morality from schools. Her work also helped pay the fines for Americans who found themselves on the wrong side of often petty laws.
Lee was a brilliant author. Her work still informs how we talk about race and justice in our country today. Her prevailing desire to let her work speak for itself instead of risking diluting her message is something writers should consider today. Lee was a literary icon and a role model for any author with the dream of having one set of culture-changing characters endure.