As anyone who has read my blog before will know Harper Lee is one of my greatest idols. That is probably why it has taken me more than a month after her passing to write my own tribute to her. It is difficult to write about someone who lets face it, would have written it much better herself but anyway here goes. On the 19th of February last the world lost a true legend. Nelle Harper Lee died at the age of 89. She was born in Monroeville, Alabama in 1926. She moved to New York in the 1950’s and began working as a ticket agent for a local airline. As well as working other jobs, Lee always pursued her passion for writing. She never gave up on her dream of becoming a writer. Although she had moved from Alabama, the little town of Monroeville and the people of her childhood never really left her.
The first manuscript she submitted to a publisher was called “Go Set a Watchman“. It was set in the fictional town of Maycomb, a town not unlike the one where Lee herself grew up. After years of rewriting and editing the manuscript it finally evolved into her first novel “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The book was published in 1960 to rave reviews. In 1961 Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the novel was also adapted into a major motion picture staring Gregory Peck. Mockingbird is the story of a black man called Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a white woman in a small town in Alabama in the 1930’s.
Lee drew from a number of cases that had occurred during the course of her own childhood. She knew of these cases because her father was a lawyer and she had grown up hearing the stories time and time again. She was also extremely aware of the racial tension that existed at the time. One of her most famous characters Atticus Finch was loosely based on her own father. Even though she denied it time and time again there was no denying the striking similarities between her characters and the people from her childhood. Mockingbird was an insight into these troubling times told through the eyes of a child. Its simplicity was in truth its genius. The novel carried with it a message of hope and tolerance.
It was an opportunity for the American people to take a long hard look at their society and their relationship to the issue of race. It made readers realise that although we might not all look the same or come from the same place, human beings are at their core, not all that different from each other. “To Kill A Mockingbird” perched itself in the hearts and minds of a nation and helped them understand each other a little more clearly. It took the innocence of a child’s voice to deliver such an important message. The combination of small town charm mixed with invariable truths proved to be a winning combination. Lee wanted to write a book that wouldn’t tell readers what to think, instead it would make them think for themselves, “To Kill A Mockingbird” did just that.
The success of Mockingbird came as such a shock to Lee that she retreated back to her home town in Alabama. Readers waited with bated breath for her next book but it never materialised. She did not enjoy the lime light nor did she appreciate the intrusion that fame brought with it. She withdrew from the glare of the media spotlight and lived a quite life back in Monroeville with no interruptions from the outside world. Years passed and most people had given up hope, it seemed that Lee would never publish again. Then more than 50 years later another manuscript was discovered. It was called “Go Set A Watchman”. This one was written before her first novel. It turned out to be the original manuscript that Lee had presented to the publishers some fifty years earlier. It revisits the same characters years after the events in Mockingbird. It was published in 2015 but this time due to the changes made to many of her best-loved characters, most especially Atticus Finch the reaction was not quite as positive. Some readers were outraged and felt as though their beloved story had been tarnished forever. In spite of the mixed feelings and suspicion surrounding the release of Watchman Lee remained one of the most treasured American writers of her time.
Mockingbird has sold more than thirty million copies and has been translated into more than forty languages. It is still one of the most successful and celebrated books of all time. It became part of many young people’s school curriculum including my own, helping to change attitudes and shape young minds. At the heart of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a young girl who is desperately trying to understand the world around her. I was once a young girl struggling to do the same and Lee’s book was of great comfort to me. Like any good story it not only instructs but delights its readers. It helped not only Scout to see things more clearly but it also helped me and millions of others around the world. It is a simple and yet poignant examination of humanity and what could be possible if we all just treated each other a little better.
Some people say that Lee’s novel is too innocent, simplistic or quaint for the modern world with its descriptions of small town life. As I look around at a world where racism is ever prevalent and terrorist attacks have become a daily topic of conversation I firmly disagree with this assessment. Her story might be simple but her ideas are big. After all the notion that we can all do a little better if we just try to understand each other a bit more is I believe, more important now than ever. Lee was not afraid to ask the all important questions and allow the reader to search within themselves for the answers.
When I heard the news about Lee’s passing I was genuinely saddened, as though a true friend had died. The more I read the vast number of tributes online I began to realise that I wasn’t the only one who felt that sense of loss. I suppose that’s the true test of a great writer. Lee explained it best when she said, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” Until I heard the news I did not fully realise what she meant to me. So I suppose this is my way of saying thank you. She will always be remembered in the pages of her book. I hope she knows what a rare gift it really is.