Haper Lee, the reclusive author of two books – both amongst the most controversial of their time – has passed away at the age of 89. For an author who only published two books in her life, Lee’s place in literary history is assured by the quality of the two and the effect they had on American society.
1961’s To Kill a Mockingbird is considered by many, myself among them, to be the greatest American novel. It introduced the world to Atticus Finch, a principled lawyer who defended a black man against a rape charge in rural Alabama. The novel also introduced iconic characters like Scout Finch and Boo Radley and was adapted into an Academy Award winning film with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Most schools mandate Mockingbird as required reading and, quite frankly, you didn’t go to a good one if they didn’t (mine didn’t, for the record).
Lee became almost as famous for her refusal to discuss Mockingbird and her reclusiveness as she did for the groundbreaking novel itself. She never published another book, gave interviews on the one she had and had been living in an assisted care facility the last few years. All this is why it was a literary bombshell when, after 44 years, she published a sequel to Mockingbird entitled Go Set a Watchman.
Watchman isn’t so much a sequel as it is the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. The publishers wanted something where Scout Finch was a young girl, so Lee returned with Mockingbird. The hand-written draft of Watchman was thought lost for decades until its discover and publication last summer. While Watchman is not the masterpiece Mockingbird is (no other American novel is, after all), it was still the best book of 2015 and challenged readers to accept a more nuanced, realistic and complicated Atticus Finch than the hero-carved-in-marble that had been established over the years.
For my part, I don’t think Watchman tarnishes the character of Atticus Finch. He went to a KKK meeting? I think the important thing is he went ONCE and that to see who was showing up to these things. A product of an isolated southern town, his concerns about racial integration were not spoken from a standpoint of bigotry, but terror over the South seceding from the nation once more. Given that I’m never sure when South Carolina is just going to pop off and do that to this day, it was a perfectly reasonable fear for a man of his birth to hold. What’s not mentioned in many Watchman reviews is how Scout grows into a young lady for her times, a Finch to face the complexities of the coming civil rights era, as Atticus was the Finch the world needed in his generation. Lee’s prose was always a pleasure to spend time with, and I’m glad Watchman was published. Her impact on the literary scene and the social dynamics of racial politics are just as relevant today as when Mockingbird was first published. Her legacy as one of the most powerful novelists America has ever produced is etched in stone.
Full obituary below by Ed Pilkington of Guardian News. Continue reading R.I.P. Harper Lee (1926 – 2016) *America’s Greatest Novelist Has Passed*