“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
On Friday, February 19th, we lost Nelle Harper Lee, the author of two books. The first book, To Kill a Mockingbird, was a masterpiece. The second, Go Set a Watchman, was fatally flawed. The difference between the two was not just the disillusionment with an icon who had, since 1960, represented a model of ethics, honor, and model single parenting before the concept was labeled sinful instead of a situation thrust upon the a left behind father or mother. Atticus Finch walked the walk and talked the talk. When young Scout asks him why he has taken on the unpopular work of defending a Black man in a case he knows he cannot win he tells her,” This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”
_[Scout] “Atticus, you must be wrong….most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…”
_[ATTICUS] “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions…but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” In that way, he modeled behavior that we seldom see, especially, these days. Someone who lives up to the oath he took but also demonstrates respect, not only for himself but for others despite their race.
TKAM had poetry and flow in abundance and the second book lacked. I always go to the description of the ladies of Maycomb as an example of the beauty of this book, and the way that Ms. Lee could, with her words, paint a picture so vivid that you do not need a painting to visualize it. ” Ladies,” Ms. Lee wrote, “Bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
If you’ve read recent biographies of Ms. Lee, you will know that the characters in TKAM had counterparts on her real life. Her father was, in fact, a lawyer, a profession then pursued by her older sister, Alice. There was also a brother in the Lee family. Mostly, however, there was Dill, the imaginative and fey child who created a father for himself out of air. Much like the father in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Dill’s father fell in love with long distances and Dill was sent from relative to relative. Years later, it became a matter of fact that Dill’s prototype was the author, Truman Capote, Nelle’s childhood neighbor and dysfunctional friend. Jealous of his friend’s Pulitzer, he expected the same recognition for his docudrama, In Cold Blood. It drove a wedge between the writers because Capote, who had a larger portfolio of written works, was popular but not acclaimed. How do you compete with a phenomenon?
The characters in TKAM jump from the page in ways that other literary characters do not. They are like pop-up characters on the flat page of a book. The Finch family, their friends, neighbors, and even their enemies dealt with the problems of America in the Great Depression. These problems were universal, such as poverty, lack of food, the gulf between the middle class and people who were literary dirt poor and, of course, the racism that permeated the South and many other areas of the United States.
In the early 1960s, this book was the first literary novel I read, and it explained to me why our country was about to explode in protests; marches; murders; and long, hot summers of racial discord. While I didn’t understand it at the time, my own northern city was every bit as segregated as Ms. Lee’s fictional Maycomb, Alabama. Down south, segregation was overt, but in the north it was de facto. “Sections,” as we called neighborhoods, were white or black, Italian, Irish, or Jewish. Our lives ran parallel and intersected only after elementary school when we were funneled into bigger, mixing pot junior highs and high schools.
I read Mockingbird around the same time that I first read Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. I understood the persecution that Anne faced because I knew neighbors who had survived the Shoah. These survivors had second families, the children born in the new world to replace those lost in the old one. Those replacement children, as if a child can be replaced, were among my friends. I read these books annually, my unassigned summer reading, along with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Scout, Anne, and Francie Nolan were my guides through adolescence, through the commonality of coming of age when summer still meant reading on the front stoop every day as my own talcum powder melted in the city humidity.
At that age, I would have been hard-pressed to express the commonalities among the books. Over the years, I understood the nuance and the drama. I looked into the words. I understood that hate is hate whether it comes in the form of white sheets and burning crosses or jackboots and shattered shop windows.
Often when a perfect book is made into a movie, the translation is disappointing. However, that was not the case with TKAM. The sets were evocative. The casting was perfect. Who now can hear the name Atticus Finch without picturing Gregory Peck either reading to Scout on their front porch or taking the pose of the valiant warrior in the courtroom? When the lights went down, when the flirting teenagers settled down to make out with their dates in their seats, I was mesmerized because the book that I had pictured was there in black and white and two dimensions. My favorite scene remains the one in which Atticus, defeated by the jury of twelve white men, and is leaving the courtroom. The Black citizens of Maycomb, relegated to the balcony, stand as one to honor the fallen champion. The minister of the town’s Black church turns to Scout and calls her by her real name, “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise. Stand up. Your father is passing.”
Reading the book of TKAM, or seeing the movie is like looking through a rippled window to another era. It is authentic and evocative in ways that other books cannot touch. You read the story and Dill is playing in the collards right before your eyes. Scout and Jeb find their first presents from “Boo” Randall in the hollow of a rotted tree. Atticus takes out a rabid dog with one swift, sure shot. No book comes to life better than TKAM.
And now the storyteller who brought that world to life has died. Nelle Harper Lee who described the hardscrabble world of the Depression and the fight of one little tomboy to understand the complicated world that surrounds her, is gone. At age 89, blind and deaf, one might say that she had a good run, a life well lived. She was not so much a recluse as a suspicious of publicity after the initial experience of stardom in the sixties. Although pictures circulated of the shrunken apple doll that she had become, the smile was still there. Rumors of elder abuse surrounding the release of the second book were saddening. Who would ever mistreat a legend, a national treasure?
I do mourn the loss of this quiet woman who built one of the most dramatic, awe-inspiring, and deeply true books I have ever read. I am comforted by the mental picture I have of Ms. Lee’s reception in Heaven. Nelle Harper Lee will not dress for the occasion. She will wear her trademark plaid shirt and jeans for this pre-destined trip. Dill is swinging on the Heavenly Gates, and Jem stands by his side, rolling a tire back and forth, waiting to torture his baby sister. Atticus stands aside, smiling the slow grin of a father just waiting for his daughter to return home. “Hey,” they will say, “Hey, Scout, we’ve been waiting forever for you to show up. Come inside the garden gate because eternity is waiting for you.”
Then the stars light her way just as if they were old-fashioned street lights under which Scout, Dill, and Jem can play until it’s time for bed. Rest in peace, Ms. Lee.