Celebrate Harper Lee Through Her Writing

Harper Lee
Harper Lee. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

2016 is proving to be a harrowing year for beloved celebrities. David Bowie, Alan Rickman—and now, Harper Lee, a woman whose impact on American literature can’t be overstated despite having published just two novels and a slim list of essays in her lifetime. Lee, 89, passed away in her sleep in Monroeville, Alabama, the town she was born in and where she returned permanently in 2007 following a stroke.

The old cliché “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” applies here: Lee, despite having retreated from publishing and public life for the most part since the early 1960s, was a mainstay in pop culture. In part this was due to her decision to stop publishing and her reluctance to make appearances or to grant interviews—but it was also due to the sheer power of her writing. To Kill a Mockingbird and to a lesser extent its prequel/sequel Go Set a Watchman were powerful stories that combined issues of race and justice with a warm, emotionally vibrant view of the world as well as a deep wit. No one could read those novels and come away unaffected or unchanged, and ever since its publication To Kill a Mockingbird has been a steady presence in our schools.

A Chosen Life

Nelle Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. She studied law, but before completing her studies she moved to New York to pursue a career as a novelist.

As we now know, her first effort—which eventually published in 2015 as Go Set a Watchman—was rejected by her publisher. Where some novelists would have been broken by such a defeat, however, Lee took the feedback offered (advising her that the flashbacks to Jean Louise Finch’s childhood were the strongest aspects of the manuscript) and re-worked the novel into To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that exploded onto the literary scene, making Lee a celebrity and earning the novel the 1961 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

After the 1962 film version of the novel, starring Gregory Peck, was a smash hit, however, Lee backed away from both publishing and the public life. She worked with her friend Truman Capote and published a few essays in the 1960s, but she never published anything substantial after Mockingbird, and even Watchman was a manuscript written in the 1950s. She was once asked by a relative why she never wrote another book and offered the simplest excuse possible: “When you have a hit like that, you can't go anywhere but down.”

She split time between New York and Monroeville until 2007, when she suffered a stroke and returned to her place of birth to live with her sister, Alice. Alice lived to be 103 years old, passing away in 2014. By this time, Lee was deaf, had poor eyesight, and was moved into an assisted-living facility. The discovery of the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman and its publication accompanied by media fanfare was viewed with suspicion by some—Lee had never publicly changed her stance about publishing a new book—but the public was ecstatic, and Watchman became the one of the best-selling books of 2015.

A Shared Experience

As a result, To Kill a Mockingbird is that rarity of the modern age: A truly shared experience, a piece of culture that everyone is familiar with—and which is more or less universally loved.

While it might sometimes seem like other books are that universal, the number of books that just about everyone has read at some point in their lives, even if only when forced to by a classroom curriculum. Our world is increasingly fragmented, and that sort of touchstone is invaluable. No matter who you meet, if they went through the American school system chances are if nothing else you have both read that novel.

So, today, if you’re wondering how to honor a woman who was easily one of the best writers of her generation if not all-time, a woman who chose for most of her adult life to let her novel speak for her, to let her writing and her greatest achievement be her voice—read To Kill a Mockingbird one more time. Scout Finch is based on Lee’s own childhood, so in a way reading the book is like having a conversation with Harper Lee one more time, a conversation with a warm, wise woman who still has a lot to teach us.

No matter how many times you’ve read the book, read it again. A great novel is never a waste of time, and Lee herself obviously wanted Mockingbird to be her final testament. Read it again and contemplate how far we’ve come (and not come) on the issues it explores. Read it again and celebrate that for a short time we had Harper Lee on this Earth, and consider that we may not see her like again.