The Legacy of Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird

Author Harper Lee died on Friday at age 89.

Her legacy to the literary world is, of course, her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, which was published last year amid much controversy.

While I have a very strong appreciation for To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s not one of my personal “life-changing” novels. I’m not quite sure why that is. I read it for the first time in 1987 as a high school senior and then re-read it five years ago when several bloggers (including myself) participated in a reading event to celebrate 50 years since its publication.

I thought I would re-visit some thoughts from my July 2010 post.

As an adult, I’m also appreciating Harper Lee’s writing much more than I probably did in 12th grade, back when I knew it all. The dialogue and dialect of the Deep South, the vivid description of characters and scene, the pure pluck of Scout, the mystery of Boo.

What strikes me about To Kill a Mockingbird today on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication is how timeless and relevant this book is all these years later.  There are so many themes running through these pages that we’re still dealing with today – racism and issues of class, the rush to judgment and to make assumptions, just to name a few. Tom Robinson’s story is that of so many others, and so in turn is Scout’s and Jem’s and Atticus’s and Boo’s and Mr. Ewell’s and Mr. Raymond’s and almost every character in the book.

It does make one wonder:  what book, what author, what literary characters in our conscious today will we be talking about and discussing 50 years from today?  When I’m 91, which book will I be re-reading?  I’m honestly not too sure. (Of what book I’ll be re-reading, that is.  If I’m still here at age 91, rest assured that I’ll probably still be working on Mount TBR.)

Reading To Kill a Mockingbird at this juncture also makes me wonder about the characters themselves. Because Harper Lee makes them so real to us in the book, it’s interesting to think what they would be like 50 years later, how the experiences that they lived through in the novel would have shaped them.  What would Scout be like as she approaches her 60th birthday? (Still a spunky spitfire, I’d bet.)  Would Jem have become a lawyer like Atticus?  And what of Atticus?  Would he have eventually remarried?

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the 1930s; fifty years later for them would have taken them to the 1980s. What would their experiences in the ’60s been like, living as they would have through the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr.?  And even later: what would they have thought of Obama being elected President?  I think their childhood experiences were such that they couldn’t have helped but shape them and their impressions of these historical events.

When I wrote that post, none of us knew of the existence of Go Set a Watchman, the novel that is either much-celebrated or a representative of elder abuse, depending on your viewpoint. I approached it with some skepticism and an open mind (at least I’d like to think so).  I didn’t finish it, but suffice it to say that 43 pages was enough to put me solidly in the “this should never have been published” camp.

I think the loss of Harper Lee is made especially sad because of the controversial issues surrounding Go Set a Watchman. I hope that she was, as reports have said, truly happy about its publication.

And if not, that she was able to find some peace.