NEWS: Harper Lee (1926-2016) – An Appreciation (and an Against-the-Grain Prediction)

The great Harper Lee, who won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89. 

Lee will be remembered for writing one of the most beloved books in American literature, a story about race, class, justice, small-town southern life, and a spirited girlhood. We agree with the British librarians who in 2006 put it at the top of their list of books everyone should read, edging out the Bible.

Lee will also be remembered for leading a gentle, private life, assiduously avoiding the limelight, and only occasionally stepping forward – to challenge a school board for banning To Kill a Mockingbird, or to accept a major award.

For nearly all of her life, it was assumed Lee would be one of those authors who produced just one great novel – like Emily Bronte or Ralph Ellison. Then last year, Go Set a Watchman, appeared – to considerable controversy. Some questioned whether Lee wanted this second book published (though there was evidence she did), and others objected that it portrayed Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, as racist.

It is understandable that fans are protective of Lee and her remarkable novel, but what was largely lost in the discussion was how much truth Lee packed into Go Set a Watchman – about small-town southern life in the mid-1900s, about race and class relations in that same period, and about friends and family, who are rarely as one-dimensionally heroic as Hollywood movie heroes.

This was, it appears, the story Lee wanted to tell when she moved to New York from her hometown of Monreoville, Alabama and set out to become a writer.  It was not, however, the story that her New York editors particularly wanted to publish.

Our prediction is that, over time, Go Set a Watchman will be appreciated a great deal more than it was on its release – and that it will add to Lee’s reputation.  It is not likely ever to eclipse her most famous work, but it is not hard to imagine that, in its own way, Go Set a Watchman will one day be regarded as another southern classic – one with a more gimlet, even jaundiced, eye about people and about life.