Harper Lee Created the Greatest American Hero
Some years ago, I added “To Kill a Mockingbird” to the syllabus of my course on Ethics in Literature. I teach in a law school, and the students in the seminar were as hard-bitten and hypercritical as one would expect. Most of the works we read they trashed from one end to the other, often with the easygoing savage hauteur of the young intellectual. But not “Mockingbird.” They treated the classic with a respect bordering on awe. Prompting them to criticize it was as successful as prompting an Evangelical to criticize the Bible.
Harper Lee, who died Friday at 89, always professed herself astounded at the role of her masterpiece in the lives of so many millions of readers. The story’s images are seared into us. Those who don’t read it in middle school read it in high school. The book is as firmly installed in the popular culture as a novel can be. It’s inspired satires galore -- including on “The Simpsons” -- and Aaron Sorkin is now adapting it for Broadway.
“Mockingbird” was published in 1960. After the book quickly sold 500,000 copies, Life magazine quoted an ecstatic neighbor who said to Lee: “The next thing you’ll be getting one of those awards from across the water.”
Maybe not -- Lee had to settle for a Pulitzer Prize and, later on, a couple of presidential medals -- but the book’s influence on generations of schoolchildren can hardly be overstated. The story of Scout Finch’s Alabama childhood and her father’s brave but doomed defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman is not only one of the best-selling novels of all time (estimates run above 40 million copies), but also one of the most loved. As the legal scholar Thomas Shaffer has put it: “The millions of people who like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are not analytical about their liking it.” He added: “The story of Atticus Finch appeals in an immediate way to people. ... He is a hero.”
The novel was published at an auspicious moment. Lee, moved by such events as the killing of Emmett Till to reflect upon the racial attitudes of the town where she grew up, at first had trouble shaping the narrative. But when she finally succeeded, she had written what Oprah Winfrey would call “our national novel” and the writer Jane Smiley would later call “the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of the twentieth century.”
The book was part autobiographical -- Lee modeled Scout on herself, Atticus on her father, the neighbors in Maycomb on her neighbors in Monroeville -- and even the scorching tale of the trial in the bigoted town was something of a cri de coeur. Her experiences outside the South had redefined her, but she could never quite turn her back on the world that had spawned her.
On initial publication, “Mockingbird” received generally glowing reviews, although the New York Times warned that “some of the scenes suggest that Miss Lee is cocking at least one eye toward Hollywood.” If she was, that was a good thing. The film version is one of the most beloved movies ever, and in 2003, the character of Atticus Finch (portrayed by Gregory Peck, who won the Academy Award) was selected by the American Film Institute as the greatest movie hero of all time.
After the film, however, Lee disappeared.
Not really. She wasn’t a Garbo-esque recluse. She simply preferred to spend time with friends and neighbors. One of her closest friends was Truman Capote, with whom she had traveled when he was researching “In Cold Blood.” A Capote biographer described their bond as “a common anguish” over childhoods where each felt rejected by parents and peers alike.
Meanwhile, fans waited for her next book. And waited, and waited, and waited. Lee was 34 years old when “Mockingbird” was published. When “Go Set a Watchman” finally saw the light of day in 2015, she was 88. The new novel, as it turned out, was mostly from an old manuscript, the rough original from which “Mockingbird” derived. “Watchman” was a huge commercial success, but critics were largely unkind. In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik called it “a failure as a novel,” but nevertheless “testimony to how appealing a writer Harper Lee can be.” Michiko Kakutani in the Times labeled it “a lumpy tale” and “a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech.”
Yet I wonder whether behind much of the criticism of “Watchman” there might not lurk a bit of disappointment that the heroic Atticus Finch turned out to be just another bigoted yokel. The anger at the second novel, in other words, might be part of the love for the first.
The Atticus we all met on first reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” back in grade school supplied a hero for all seasons, and we prefer to keep him that way. As Shaffer points out, “An important thing about hero stories is that they appeal from life to life.” That’s what Lee gave us: a hero story we can’t forget. And so one modest young woman earned her place among the literary immortals.
Maybe the problem was that I didn’t ask the right questions. I loved “Mockingbird” too. In any case, teaching the book was a one-year experiment. I never included it in the syllabus again.
I, however, rather liked it.
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