Harper Lee

Fractured legacy

Print edition : March 18, 2016

Harper Lee. Photo: Rob Carr/AP

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout in a scene from the 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird". Photo: AFP

Harper Lee (1926-2016), the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, will never be forgotten as long as there are people who love the magic of the written word.

ASK any lover of English fiction to name their favourite books and it is a no-brainer that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird will feature somewhere on the top of that list. It is a book that speaks to us even now. Its themes have never really gone away, whether we are talking of America, where unarmed black teenagers continue to be shot dead, or of India, where students like Rohith Vemula are forced to take their own lives. And considering the recent events in Delhi’s Patiala House courts, one might even wonder whether it should be made required reading in law schools across the country.

Harper Lee’s fame chiefly rests on her first novel, which would also have been her last but for the publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015. The latter work can be seen as a sequel or companion piece to the earlier one even though the manuscript was written before that of Mockingbird. The publication of Go Set a Watchman generated much controversy and the novel itself marked a radical break with its precursor in such significant ways that it led some people to conclude that the legacy of Mockingbird and Harper Lee’s reputation itself had been tarnished.

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, as the youngest of four children. Her father, Amasa Coleman (“A.C.”) Lee, was a lawyer with the firm Barnett, Bugg & Lee. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, was his ancestor. Harper Lee’s mother suffered from mental illness, and it was said that she tried to drown Harper Lee twice in the bath. The writer Truman Capote was a childhood friend who came to spend his summers in Monroeville. The tomboyish Harper Lee and Capote would spend time together reading and inventing stories. Harper Lee’s father gave her an Underwood typewriter, which accompanied her everywhere. Capote appears in Mockingbird as the precocious Dill Harris. He returned the favour by modelling the character of Idabel Tompkins in his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms on Harper Lee.

After graduating from high school in 1944, Harper Lee went to the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery. She later transferred to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. She was a regular contributor to the university’s newspaper and its humour magazine, Rammer Jammer. She went on to become its editor.

True calling

In her junior year, Harper Lee enrolled in the university’s law school but soon realised that writing was her true calling. She went to Oxford University in England that summer as an exchange student. Although she resumed her law studies in the fall, Harper Lee dropped out after the first semester. In 1949, she moved to New York City, where she worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and for the British Overseas Airway Corporation. In New York, Harper Lee ran into her old friend Capote, who was already recognised as a promising writer. She also became friends with the Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Martin Brown and his wife, Joy.

In 1956, the Browns decided to support Harper Lee financially for a year so that she could become a full-time writer. She quit her job to pursue her dream. It was through the Browns that she found her literary agent, Maurice Crain, who introduced her to her publisher, J.B. Lippincott Company. Harper Lee started working on her novel, which was eventually published in July 1960 with the title To Kill a Mockingbird. It was picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild and in 1961 won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.

The novel was inspired by an incident that occurred in Harper Lee’s hometown in 1933. A black man was convicted of rape, but his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Harper Lee’s father had been instrumental in getting the death sentence commuted. It was his first and last criminal case. Yet another inspiration would have been the Scottsboro case of 1931 in which nine black teenagers were accused of the rape of two white girls.

Surprisingly, despite its popularity, there have been demands to ban the novel in school libraries. African-American parents in Oklahoma had problems with the use of the word “nigger”, and the school board had to remove the book from reading lists. In Hanover county, Virginia, it was banned along with books such as The Wizard of Oz and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

After she finished the novel, she received an invitation from Capote to assist him on his book to be based on the story of a murdered Kansas family, the Clutters. Harper Lee assumed the roles of secretary, interviewer and go-between for Capote. The book was Capote’s 1966 bestseller, In Cold Blood. Harper Lee accompanied Capote to Holcombe, Kansas, when he went there to do some research on the murders. Her presence helped him to win the confidence of Midwesterners, who were not too comfortable with his city slicker ways.

Two years after Mockingbird was published, it was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and directed by Robert Mulligan. To date, it is considered one of the best movie adaptations of a book. The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards and ended up winning three, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch “American cinema’s all time greatest hero”. The character is said to have been based on Harper Lee’s father.

Since 1990, a theatrical adaptation of the novel has been religiously performed in Monroeville. Recently, the producer Scott Rudin announced that Aaron Sorkin would be writing a new stage adaption, which is to premiere on Broadway in 2017. In November 2007, President George W. Bush presented Harper Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her “outstanding contribution to America’s literary tradition”. Harper Lee did not follow up with a second novel, though she did make an attempt to write a true crime novel called The Reverend about a priest who was a killer.

In 2007, Harper Lee had a stroke following which she moved into an assisted living facility in Monroeville. In May 2013, she went to court accusing her literary agent Samuel Pinkus of trying to dupe her out of the copyright to Mockingbird and diverting royalties from the work, but in September they reached a settlement.

First manuscript

Watchman was actually the first manuscript she had submitted to her publisher, in 1957. In it, the characters who appear in Mockingbird are adults. But the editor asked her to revise the story making a child, Scout, the central character. The revision took two years and resulted in Mockingbird.

Harper Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter discovered, in a safe deposit box, the manuscript of Watchman, which was believed to have been lost. When it was announced that HarperCollins would publish it in July 2015, there were some questions as to whether the 88-year-old Harper Lee had consented to publish the novel. She issued a statement through Tonja Carter saying that she was “alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman”.

Harper Lee died on February 19 at the age of 89.

After the runaway success of Mockingbird, readers expected Harper Lee to churn out more novels but were disappointed when she went into hibernation. When one of her cousins, Richard Williams, asked her why she never wrote another book, she answered: “When you have a hit like that, you can’t go anywhere but down.” Her words may have been prophetic, going by the reactions to her second novel. Mockingbird is a literary classic. It explores issues such as racism and prejudice in small-town Alabama but is also a coming-of-age novel that dealt with themes such as the loss of childhood innocence. Harper Lee’s biographer Charles J. Shields calls it the “ Huckleberry Finn of the 20th century”. Scout is part of a very American tradition of young narrators such as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn who expose the faults and foibles of adults with a clear eye. And Atticus Finch is the father everyone longs to have: wise, principled, idealistic, humane, compassionate and fair-minded. After the novel was published, people named their children after him or decided to become lawyers, such was the cachet the character enjoyed. The book is also a veritable treasure house of eminently quotable quotes. Sample the ones below:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of [another].... There are just some kind of men who—who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”

Widely criticised

Although Watchman also became a bestseller, it was widely criticised. The novel upends the feel-good vibes of the earlier book by revealing that the honourable Atticus is actually a bigoted racist with ties to the dreaded Ku Klux Klan.

In the novel, the 26-year-old Scout returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City and is stunned to discover that her father, her hero and idol, and her long-time boyfriend have crossed over to the opposite camp. Like Scout, the reader is also shocked when Atticus asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?” For many readers and fans of the earlier novel, it was as if Harper Lee had betrayed them. They would now have to revisit the novel and the character of Atticus and see them with new eyes.

While some academics saw in it an opportunity to re-examine white liberalism in literature, many critics felt that it was a much inferior novel in terms of style and content. Others denounced its racial politics. Natasha Tretheway, a former poet laureate, feels that the second book is “deeply flawed” and yet timely and important because it reveals that “a person can be noble and justice-seeking, but at the same time maintain these deeply ingrained ideas of racial difference and want to maintain the status quo”. She argues that the novel gains more significance “in terms of her larger legacy”.

One critic describes it as “a book of enormous literary interest, and questionable literary merit”. The literary interest probably has more to do with the curious history of the work itself—an original story which was given a quiet burial only to be given a new lease of life five decades later. It baffled both readers and other writers because of its portrayal of Atticus, who transmogrifies from a much-loved character in the first novel into a reviled one in the second. There are authorial hints about changing times and the polarisation caused by the civil rights movement to explain the toxic mutation that Atticus undergoes. Another plausible explanation could be that fictional characters also evolve, the way human beings do in real life. One is reminded of Robert Frost’s lines: “I never dared be radical when young/ For fear it would make me conservative when old.”

Like J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee rarely gave interviews. In a private conversation with Oprah Winfrey, she once compared herself to Boo Radley, the shy recluse in her first novel. While writing Mockingbird, her intent was to chronicle something that was vanishing rapidly, small-town, middle-class Southern life. “There is something universal in it; something decent to be said for it and something to lament, once it goes, in its passing. In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama,” she declared in a 1964 interview.

Harper Lee may have left behind a fractured legacy, but the “mockingbird” will continue to sing its haunting melody as long as there are people who love the magic of the written word and believe in its redemptive and healing powers.

Vasantha K. Krishnaraj is a writer based in Chennai.