On the death of Harper Lee

On the death of Harper Lee

Today we heard that Nelle Harper Lee died at the age of 89. No doubt this last year had been rather difficult for her, no matter which aspects of the publishing debate over Go Set a Watchman are actually true. I hope she was peaceful and at rest before her passing. We’ve lost an important American literary icon, and one whose insights into America’s problems with race aren’t fully appreciated, despite the fact that she wrote one of the most popular novels on the subject.

Like many Americans, I first encountered To Kill a Mockingbird in the stunning film version starring Gregory Peck. When I first read the book, Peck’s Atticus was the one I imagined, and I read the book largely as a faithful representation of the movie.

But later, as I sharpened my critical reading skills, I started to realize that in fact, like many movies, To Kill A Mockingbird distorted the book.

There is a key scene in Mockingbird that especially troubled me: it’s in chapter 24, when Aunt Alexandra is hosting the missionary society and Atticus delivers the news that Tom Robinson is dead. Alexandra and Maudie are stunned, but after pulling themselves together, they continue to serve desserts to the Maycomb ladies, whose conversation has provided full evidence of their bigotry and hypocrisy. It’s one of the most powerful and underrated scenes in the book; Maudie only speaks up once, and only in defense of Atticus. Alexandra and Maudie (and most poignantly, Scout) continue to embody gracious Southern hostesses and ensure the comfort of their guests. They do not rock any boats.

I’ve struggled with that scene over the years because I can’t imagine returning to the table and ignoring the tragedy that had just occurred, pandering to those in the community whose bigotry forced the “handful” with background and integrity to continue their lonely fight for change. And yet for Scout, it’s a lesson in how to become a lady and how to live in a community of diverse opinions. The ladies enact in private what the jurors had done in public: they privileged the bonds of community, in which the status quo is typically upheld in order to avoid social strife.

Last summer, in the wake of debates about the Confederate flag and with the anniversary of Ferguson approaching, I pre-ordered my copy of Go Set a Watchman and read it the night it arrived. No, it is not as refined or as subtle as Mockingbird.  I don’t really know if Harper Lee really wanted it published or not. But after reading it, I was even more in awe of her insights into the perpetuation of racism and prejudice.

Both books explore community and the bonds that keep us in stasis. Maudie and Alexandra don’t shun the ladies at the tea, partly because they are being polite but also because to do so would be to destroy the fabric of that polite society. A storeowner can’t afford to be political and risk offending customers who provide his livelihood. Henry Clinton, in Go Set a Watchman, tells Finch that he does not have the protection of coming from a privileged family, as she does, and he needs to work much harder to fit into the community. Only Bob Underwood can afford to speak his mind because he’s more financially independent and his newspaper has no competition, but he loses his social standing and the respect of the community in the process.

It is that community and those social bonds that enable the racism (and sexism, and classism) to perpetuate. And yet, that’s where Lee is the most brilliant and prescient. She looks into the future and sees our modern America, polarized and divided over these issues.

We wouldn’t stay at the tea table together anymore. But that doesn’t mean we’ve progressed all that much, either.

How do you stay in the community (or family, or neighborhood, or job) that doesn’t fully support what you believe? But what if we all isolated ourselves and only associated with those who agree with us? How can progress be made if we’re too polarized to talk about it? If we can’t recognize the bonds that keep us together as much as the bonds that keep us apart?

This is Scout’s dilemma in Watchman. How does she respond to the discovery that all the white men in Maycomb, including Henry and Atticus, are members of the Citizens Council (a genteel version of the Klan): should she fully renounce Maycomb and her family and return to New York, where she can be color blind and ignore the problems? Or should she stay and try to assist her community in navigating the social, political, and economic issues they face in the wake of integration and Civil Rights? Aunt Alexandra tells Scout that her friends need her the most when they’re wrong. Is that true? Can friendship transcend such vastly different belief systems?

There is no neat ending, no beautifully moving denouement that leaves us feeling inspired. Instead, we’re left with difficult questions, for which we still do not have compelling answers. There is nothing in Watchman that isn’t explicitly or implicitly addressed in Mockingbird. I didn’t feel the same about Mockingbird after reading this book, but if anything, I’m more in awe of Lee’s insights into America and into the racism that pervades it.

I truly want to believe that Lee wanted Watchman to be published last year, and that she knew exactly what she was doing when she did. But it seems that now we will never know. Rest in peace, Nelle.

About Kari Miller

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