Harper Lee has left us today and the light of the literary world has grown just a bit dimmer in the wake of that news. While she may have been small in physical stature, she was truly a giant among that handful of writers who left their mark on the pages of literature in the 20th century and whose impact still influences writers of the 21st. Most likely that impact will endure beyond this century.
I was introduced to her greatest work as an incoming 9th grade student with a long list of summer reading books assigned by Charlotte Crawley, who was to be my English teacher that year. From the moment I opened it, I was plunged deep into the South of the 1930’s and the world of Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Calpurnia, Tom Robinson…and what a rich world of words and images she painted on the pages of that book. It became my favorite book, one of those treasured tomes that finds a place in that special circle of books that you keep in your permanent collection. It was also one that I would pull out every few years and reread again, finding new meanings and thought-provoking revelations with each new reading.
It covered a broad range of topics including injustice and courage in the face of injustice; growth as a person while simultaneously losing the innocence of childhood; class and culture of a way of life that, while best left in the past, still interests and intrigues so many and much more. She created images with her words that still linger in my mind…the creaky porch of the Radley house, the stifling heat of the courtroom during the Robinson trial, the smells of Calpurnia’s cooking and the dusty streets of the “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama.
Against this backdrop, she lovingly painted the characters that virtually leapt off the pages of the book, bringing them to life with great depth as they paraded both their virtues and flaws in equal measure. No character of any significance was spared the life-giving elixir of the ink that flowed from her pen and those characters became both real and amazingly similar to the interesting characters of my childhood in a small Georgia town.
Atticus Finch was my hero, his love of the law second only to his respect for the institution that is our American courts. His integrity and his personal honor are the cornerstones upon which his character was formed and his closing argument in the courtroom speaks to us today during these troubled times and concerns over our nation’s highest court.
He famously said “In this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal” and he made you believe that to be true. He also was wise in his counsel to Scout, reminding her that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” and this is advice I have always made at least a noble effort to follow. If nothing else, I named my cat after him.
The idyllic childhood of Scout and Jem was much like that of my own, albeit a childhood set forty years earlier than mine, in a time and under circumstances that are difficult to understand if you didn’t live in those times. They played on the streets of their neighborhood, knowing all that lived there and feeling safe from the harsher realities of the world around them, until those realities could no longer be ignored.
What they once scorned and feared, they grew to understand and even appreciate as the story unfolded, teaching us that we can’t always judge a book by its cover or a person by the myths and legends that surround them. Boo Radley had one of the smallest parts in the story, yet he stepped out of the shadows of myth into the light of reality to save them both. His character remains one of the great literary antagonist-turned-protagonists, a powerful symbol of good clothed in a necessary shroud of darkness and mystery.
Others who made the story complete were Calpurnia and her love of the Finch children; Tom Robinson, the innocent black man who stood trial and was convicted for no other reason than the color of his skin; Miss Maudie Atkinson and Dill’s Aunt Rachel Haverford give the perfect examples of the older Southern ladies so much like the ones I knew growing up and the book would have suffered without their presence. The Ewell family certainly has a prominent place as well as the authors of the misery and suffering of Tom Robinson.
Harper Lee took each one of these flawed but interesting people and wove them carefully into a literary tapestry of words, creating both a deeply meaningful story and one which falls easily upon the ears of the listener. Her own personal writing style was unique and reminiscent of great storytellers who could captivate their audience with the spinning of an intricate tale.
She took one story, filled it with unforgettable characters and left all of us longing for more in the half century of silence after its publication. It was a longing only partially satiated by the release of “Go Set a Watchman” last year and while I’ve already shared my thoughts about “Watchman” and knowing the controversial issue it will always be for some, I was still happy to get anything to read that she had written.
Harper Lee gave me one more gift before her death just a few months ago at Christmas. I came across a wonderful essay in “The Guardian” that she had written in 1961 called “My Christmas in New York”, a beautifully written short story about a very special Christmas that Lee experienced and how it changed her life. I would strongly encourage anyone that is a fan of Lee to find this essay and read it. The unmistakable style of the author is very much at work in the story and it will leave you with a good feeling about the Christmas holiday.
Harper Lee was indeed a gift to all of us…aspiring writers, avid readers and many a reluctant high school student with a long hot summer and a list of books ahead of them to read before school resumes. I’ll not miss “Dandelion Wine” nor “The Hound of the Baskervilles” but I’m truly grateful for Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird” and I know that I’m not alone in that.