Writer’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird – which won a Pulitzer prize – was originally a response to the Montgomery bus boycott four years earlier
author battled to reconcile racial justice with a racially unjust society
Harper Lee: ‘I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it’.
Saturday 20 February 2016
In one of her final interviews, given in 1964, Harper Lee, who has died at the age of 89, explained: “I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world. I hope to do this in several novels: to chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life … I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing.”
Lee never wrote several novels, of course. But one she did write, To Kill a Mockingbird, sold tens of millions of copies and regularly tops readers’ lists of favourite books.
An instant critical and commercial triumph when it was published in 1960, Mockingbird won the Pulitzer prize and became a beloved film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the white liberal lawyer who stands up to bigotry and insists that a black man should be treated as an equal citizen under the law, fighting the virulent racism of the Jim Crow south.
Told from the perspective of Atticus’s nine-year-old daughter Scout, the novel is deeply ambivalent; a nostalgic portrait of small-town Alabama in the 1930s and an indictment of its cruelties and dishonesties.
Lee began it in response to the bus boycott up the road in Montgomery in 1956, which helped launch the civil rights movement. Fifty five years later, her novel has helped spread and reinforce the messages of racial and social justice that Atticus teaches his daughter.
The universality that Lee saw in the world she grew up in, and chose to return to – rejecting the blandishments of celebrity authorship – has been widely registered. But the question of its decency is more complicated.
Some have seen in the pages of Mockingbird hypocrisy, accommodationism, apology and justification for some of the racial attitudes the novel ostensibly decries. Lee sets her story squarely against racism, but she was raised in a profoundly racist society, and that is the world whose honour she set out to defend.
It was a tricky proposition, and its difficulties were made clear last year in the publication of Go Set a Watchman, an earlier version of To Kill a Mockingbird set during the fight over desegregation in the 1950s.
Did Go Set a Watchman spoil Harper Lee’s literary legacy?
Told from the adult Scout’s perspective, with flashbacks to her childhood in the 1930s, it shocked readers by depicting an Atticus who repudiated the moral sentiments of Mockingbird and defended segregationism. The pressure that readers and the media placed on Lee to replicate her success backfired.
She was never able to write another novel, and before long had refused to give any further interviews, famously telling journalists to go to hell. But perhaps it wasn’t only being badgered that made Lee go to ground. The motto of Monroeville, Alabama, is “moving the past forward”. Perhaps Lee felt she’d done as much as she could to reconcile her present beliefs with her society’s past.
Watchman revealed that some of Lee’s characters were on the wrong side of history. But Lee was on the right side, struggling to reconcile her belief in racial justice with the realities of a racially unjust society. What could be more profoundly American than that?