Why Harper Lee Matters

Social paradigms are fought and won in a dozen novels before they ever reach Congress's floor for debate.
Social paradigms are fought and won in a dozen novels before they ever reach Congress's floor for debate.

As I reflect on author Harper Lee's passing, I recall where I first learned her name and the impact her words had on me. It was something transformative and which I can never forget. About 20 years ago, just south of Houston, I came of age in one of those sleepy towns seated deep along Highway 6 where the razor wire fences of so many refineries run alongside acres and acres of green farmland and rice fields, like the town that time forgot or at least the 14th and 15th amendments did anyway.

It was not unusual to see a Confederate flag waving as if it were in fact representative of some kind of reality, not of a failed coup more than 100 years old. My own house sat perpendicular to the county’s Confederate Cemetery, where graves that held the remains of Southern soldiers were regularly decorated and adorned, unlike other, fresher graves that courted no flowers or recent remembrances.

Covered in sprawling, low, dark oaks, dank and musty, it was nestled in Brazoria County, heavy with humidity and tree growth, bayous and alligators, not unlike a prehistoric forest. The town itself was nothing more than a tiny grid of roads that hosted names like “Jackson,” “South,” “Lee” and, of course, “Stonewall.” There remained an incredible smallness to the town both quaint and suffocating, an allegiance to tradition and a fear of all things other.

The trap of any town is always mental.

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Yet it was no show for effect; the racism was real. I remember bristling with disgust and anger at a fellow student who regularly called our African-American shop teacher Boy. Something to which the man never responded, never reacted, indeed never even got angry about — even when we did so in his defense, and sadly, there were only a few of us.

And it was my junior year of American Literature, when I was assigned to read To Kill A Mockingbird, that I found a voice that seemed to speak to my own discomfort. Maycomb County mirrored my own community in almost every way, and what Harper Lee left for me in Mockingbird was a map of how to escape.

It was not unusual to see a Confederate flag waving as if it were in fact representative of some kind of reality.
It was not unusual to see a Confederate flag waving as if it were in fact representative of some kind of reality.

It was in literature that I found where the gods speak. Novels as our cultural scripture inspired by so many wrongs truly teach us to do what is right.

Lee’s contribution to letters, to women, even to the Civil Rights movement of this country cannot be underestimated. While just years before — arguably, even at that time — women faced a much more difficult time becoming published authors, without the help or cloaking of a male pseudonym, Lee would publish something more audacious and reckless than any of her male counterparts were creating.

Lee’s timing in publishing Mockingbird in 1960 was not only brave but essential. Published just five years after Rosa Park’s famous arrest and the boycott of the Montgomery Alabama bus system, Mockingbird’s release would coincide with the sit-in protests at Greensboro, North Carolina, and the same year President Eisenhower strengthened the Civil Rights act to protect all voters.

While Lee wasn’t the only one to write about our country’s greatest paradox — all men are created equal, yet they are not all free — the fact that she did it as a Southern white female is a fact that deserves recognition. In a time when blacks still couldn’t attend the University of Alabama without threats or intimidation, most whites were either decidedly complacent or actively antagonistic toward desegregation.

Standard reading curriculum of most American students.
Standard reading curriculum of most American students.

Lee’s frustration was evident: Deeply ignorant and impotent, people either comply with racism by omission or lack of true conviction to stand up. There was an overdue acknowledgment that shamed white complicitness with status-quo racism. Mockingbird’s influence was not happenstance. Lee would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, the first author to do so for an introductory novel.

Lee’s work would lead the ranks of other Southern female authors brave enough to speak of race as a moral issue and not a legal one. Indeed, that road was paved by such women as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and African-American writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry and journalist Ida B. Wells, among others.

Lee attacked every thread of the noose; nothing was left untouched. From fears of miscegenation to sexism of race and class, even drapetomania and how religious superstition played into segregation, Lee attacked from every angle. She avoided overplayed and trite Civil War nostalgia or, worse, antebellum glorification. Bold in her critique, her thesis was: If the South is a mess, it is because the South is to blame.

Simply put, To Kill A Mockingbird is literary protest in its most elegant form.

She could be compared to her male Southern predecessors: Mark Twain and William Faulkner. But even Faulkner would romanticize the South and embrace racist stereotypes. Absalom! Absalom!, published in 1936, attempted to start a conversation about race in the South, but was not as accessible or direct as Mockingbird. Faulkner's Absalom! is ambitious high art, with a scattered and layered narrative that could never penetrate the masses like Lee’s story could and did.

Even with Huckleberry Finn, a novel that used the Romantic and innocent point of view of a child, Lee outranks Mark Twain. Unlike Twain, who used deep religious symbolism and sarcasm toward America’s stifling contentment with marginalization and slavery, Lee found her savior in the form of a soft-spoken lawyer whose uncompromising convictions and blind morality even supersede our court system. That’s the genius: The hero’s morality is untethered to the laws because the laws are corrupt. Atticus is your meek and mild lamb calling out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

It’s an ancient trope: write of a hero who can do the things we are too afraid even to dream of and watch the world forever emulate that character. The narrative as a psychological suggestion is a parable as old as Gilgamesh himself. We live and die by stories — from genealogy to religion — stories are the fabric of our identity woven over generations, millennia and history itself.

Unfortunately, her life was not without controversy. Details about her close friend Truman Capote and the wild success of his book In Cold Blood called into question its true authorship. While Capote stood by his claim of penning the entire book, the notes to the work (available on microfiche at the New York Public Library) tell that at least a strong editorial direction and research influence come directly from Lee. Should she have been named at least a co-author? Probably. And, from the apparent cooling off of their friendship, she may have agreed.

The Monroeville Courthouse
The Monroeville Courthouse

Her subsequent withdrawal from writing and refusals to interview may be a mystery to most, but ask any successful author, and the idea of hermetic life is not only necessary and tempting, but makes perfect sense. So many people cannot separate art from its artist, cannot fathom that demands, even when polite, to speak on themes explored in writing are not always welcome. The art, however controversial, stands on its own and requires no defense or apology to placate anyone.

Sadly, we all know that after many silent years, despite her own hometown's annually celebrating her life’s work — a spectacle she supposedly never attended — she eventually spent her last years in an assisted living facility, surrounded by people who we all would have hoped had her best interests in mind. That may not have been the case.

And, as we all learned last summer, publisher HarperCollins repackaged her very rough draft as a missing novel and sold it as Go Set A Watchman

Social paradigms are fought and won in a dozen novels before they ever reach Congress’s floor for debate. Mockingbird was that novel for our country, and we owe Lee the utmost respect and deference.

It is every domestic author’s dream to write the quintessential Great American Novel. To capture that true spirit of what it means to identify as American with all of its hopes, dreams and disasters, is something so fundamental to a writer, it’s the pinnacle of authorship. Lee’s only work did just that.

If nothing else, Lee’s work imparts to us all the strength of our own narrative and voice — that secrets are most powerful in their exposure no matter how uncomfortable. And that exposure has the power to change the lives of Americans — even in young female writers in little towns across the map of this country. And, for that, we are ever grateful.

Goodnight, Ms. Lee.


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