The enduring power of Harper Lee

Next week, Harper Lee will break a 55-year silence when she publishes her second ever book. Marjorie Brennan still finds inspiration in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ and Harper Lee herself after all these years

The enduring power of Harper Lee

In an era of instant information when you can buy a novel from your couch in one click, when people prefer to read blogs rather than books, and being a writer has lost its once prestigious lustre, there are very few authors who have the power to get bookstores around the world to open their doors at midnight on the day of publication.

Harper Lee is one of those authors despite having published just one book. That’s about to change with the release of Go Set a Watchman, 55 years after the publication of the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. The event has whipped fans of Lee’s only novel into a frenzy of anticipation, although it has not been without controversy. The fact the book was ‘discovered’ just two months after the death of Lee’s lawyer sister Alice, seen as the protector of her legacy, was seen by many as suspicious. The circumstances surrounding the release of the book are unclear and many have suggested the 89-year-old Lee, who is almost deaf and blind and resident in an assisted-living facility in Alabama, may not have had full control of the decision to publish it. State investigators interviewed Lee in response to a claim of elder abuse in relation to the publication of the book but announced in April that the suspicion was unfounded.

All of this attention is certainly something that Lee would find distasteful if she were aware of it. In 2006, she gave some rare comments to a reporter at an awards ceremony in Alabama, saying she spent a great deal of her time writing refusal letters to reporters seeking to interview her. When someone suggested she come up with a standard response to such requests, she joked that it would say: “Hell, no”. There is no doubt Lee’s refusal to engage in the media merry-go-round has given To Kill a Mockingbird an added power and appeal.

A gripping tale of racial tension and injustice in the Deep South as seen through the eyes of a young girl nicknamed Scout, the book has struck a chord with legions of readers around the world since it was published in 1960. It has sold more than 40m copies, never been out of print, and, along with the Bible, is the work most mentioned on those countless lists of books to read before you die.

Harper Lee

It is a deceptively simple book— indeed, author Flannery O’Connor famously (and probably enviously) said: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are buying a children’s book.”

At its heart is a complex story of moral ambiguity and the loss of innocence. Lee expertly captures the mood and atmosphere of a small town, and the ugly realities that lie beneath the civic veneer. These are gradually revealed to a perceptive Scout whose widowed father, Atticus Finch, is defending an innocent black man against a rape charge.

The book’s theme of racial tension and injustice is, dishearteningly, more relevant than ever, given recent events in South Carolina, and Atticus’s passionate evocation to Scout and her brother Jem still has import today: “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it — whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

Of course, one cannot talk about the book without considering the film, which was instrumental in introducing many people to the novel. For many people, it would be hard to conjure up the characters in the book without imagining them as they are in the film. The casting of Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch was central to its success and he became almost synonymous with the noble and kind-hearted lawyer.

Lee based the character on her father, Amasa Lee, a lawyer whose 1923 defence of a black client inspired the novel’s trial. Of the film, Lee said: “I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made.”

Lee’s father died during filming; she was so affected by Peck’s performance that she gave him her father’s watch and chain, which the actor had with him the night he received an Oscar for his role. Speaking after the actor’s death in 2003, Lee said: “Gregory Peck was a beautiful man. Atticus Finch gave him the opportunity to play himself.” Atticus Finch was voted America’s No 1 hero in an American Film Institute poll, and fans of the character will no doubt be thrilled to see him return in Go Set a Watchman, which is set 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout returns to her home town to visit her father. However, it is worth remembering that this new ‘sequel’ is in fact an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird which Lee reportedly deemed not ready for publication.

While the new book may help bring To Kill a Mockingbird to a new generation of readers, there is something depressing about the marketing blitz surrounding it, with the #GoSetAWatchman hashtag already being deployed in a social media campaign. I can’t help but think of Lee, who, in a rare piece for O magazine in 2006, wrote of how happy she was in the company of her precious books, bemoaning the technological onslaught on the publishing industry: “Can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up — some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.”

Lee wrote that growing up in Depression-era Alabama, there was little to do but read. “Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.”

I’m with Lee on this one. I will be forsaking the midnight marketing gimmicks and the scramble to download and live-tweet Go Set a Watchman. Instead, I will take the opportunity to open my two decades-old copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and lose myself in the words that Lee wanted the world to see.

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