In 1862, as civil war raged between the Union and Confederacy, President Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe. According to legend, he greeted the author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the words: “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”
A century later, the civil-rights movement in the US fought its battles with marches and bills rather than shells and bullets. But to millions of its supporters, not the busy activists but the well-meaning bystanders and helpers, another female novelist played much the same role. Nelle Harper Lee, who has died aged 89, wrote a decisive chapter not only in the history of American literature but also the history of America itself.
To Kill a Mockingbird, her first and, until July 2015, only novel, helped to inscribe a belief in racial justice and horror at discrimination into the country’s self-image. By the late 1980s, 75 per cent of US public schools taught the book. It has sold in excess of 30 million copies. In a 2006 poll of librarians, it beat the Bible in a list of books that everyone should read. Via Robert Mulligan’s film in 1962, with Gregory Peck in the Oscar-winning role of the upright widowed lawyer Atticus Finch, Lee’s novel became an evergreen Hollywood classic.
To Kill a Mockingbird – an old-fashioned, conservative-minded and deeply nostalgic story set in the early 1930s – unleashed no revolutions. That was not its author’s character or aim. Rather, it played a key part in nudging the American mainstream into a different course, in which equality of respect, of treatment and of dignity became common sense and second nature.
Over the past two years, a spate of racist murders and police injustices have proved that the Atticus who defends a black man wrongly accused of rape would still have plenty of work to do. In fact, the circumscribed idea of equality that Lee gives her hero – qualified even further last year by the controversial publication of Mockingbird’s supposed “first draft”, Go Set a Watchman – foreshadows America’s unfinished business with race. Nonetheless, the Middle America that elected and then re-elected Barack Obama is scarcely imaginable without Mockingbird on its shelves and its screens. The little lady won a big war.
Few world-changing works have had quite such an inauspicious start. The daughter of a Monroeville lawyer and newspaper editor, Amasa Coleman Lee, who would lend the fictional Atticus much of his style and outlook, Nelle Harper Lee grew up a curious tomboy – again, much like the novel’s Scout – appalled by the prospect of becoming a strait-laced Southern lady. She studied law in Alabama, but in 1949 moved to New York. She worked as an airline booking agent and pursued her ambitions to write along with her childhood friend Truman Capote, the model for Dill in Mockingbird.
For his part, Capote portrayed Lee as “Idabel Thompkins” in Other Voices, Other Rooms. The duo formed an odd but creative partnership. Later, Lee would conduct many of the interviews for Capote’s true-crime classic In Cold Blood. Her interventions darkened the vision of the book. After the success of Lee’s debut, rumours swirled for years that Capote had in fact written it. The truth is that she contributed more to his career than he did to hers.
In 1957, Lee submitted the manuscript of a novel, then entitled Go Set a Watchman, to the firm of Lippincott. The editor Tay Hohoff found in it the “spark of the true writer” but not yet a polished work. So for more than two years they refined Lee’s interconnected stories down into the sharply focused single episode that anchors Mockingbird.
On publication, mixed reviews gave little hint of its future renown. But Lee had not just a spellbinding, almost folkloric narrative gift on her side but historical luck. Mockingbird perched in the American mind at exactly the right time. The fast-rising cause of civil rights needed an icon, a talisman, that could win over even the stubbornest conservative. Lee’s book fitted the brief perfectly, with its period setting, homespun charm and unimpeachable moralism
It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, just as J F Kennedy’s new dawn broke. As with Kennedy’s speeches, feelgood rhetoric can mask a sharper urge for change. Atticus tells Scout that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”. Bland, corny? Yes, except that the skin in this case was black.
With the novel a sensation and a touchstone on a scale that frightened her, Lee retreated to Monroeville. She began the long decades of silence and near-invisibility – protected by her elder sister Alice – that most fans believed would endure until her death. Then, after a stroke in 2007 had limited her mobility and impaired both sight and hearing, came news of a “second” novel. Bitter disputes, which reached the Alabama courts, surrounded Go Set a Watchman. Had Lee authorised its publication? Could she understand what was happening? Apparently she could, the authorities decided. So the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman emerged from the shadows into global bestsellerdom last year.
Mysteries still persist. Is the book simply the first draft of Mockingbird, with the adult Scout returning home to Maycomb to discover a more cantankerous, conservative and even borderline-racist Atticus? It hardly reads as a first draft – more likely, an apprentice effort that Lee laboriously reworked.
Although Mockingbird-lovers felt bereft to see the sainted Atticus portrayed as a grouchy semi-bigot, it could be argued that this prequel-sequel bravely teases out the implications of Lee’s debut. As critic Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker, “There is no contradiction between Atticus defending an innocent black man accused of rape in Mockingbird and Atticus mistrusting civil rights 20 years later. Both are part of a paternal effort to help a minority that, in this view, cannot yet entirely help itself.”
Some fans have regretted that this shaded and troubling coda should complicate memories of their fictional hero, Atticus, and their flesh-and-blood heroine, Harper Lee herself. Yet just as her debut had caught the breeze of change, so its contentious follow-up coincided with deep-seated doubts about the uncompleted work that Atticus and his like had left behind.
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