Nelle Harper Lee, who died February 19 at the age of 89, belonged to a generation of Southern writers who rejected the racist heritage of their childhoods but not the world that nurtured it (and them). These writers were a little like the aristocrats in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, who are emotionally tied to a time they knew was passing and not fully part of the new world aborning. The inner conflict between the two worlds can also stimulate the imagination of American novelists—as it did Harper Lee.
Although the lynching of a falsely accused black man is the donné of To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee did not set out to write a Problem Novel about the Race Situation. She was a personal writer, not a reformer. She later spoke of being primarily fascinated by the “rich social pattern” of the small-town life she had known growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, and said she had aimed “to put down all I know about this because 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.” This is the world she recreated in Mockingbird, which became one of the most-loved American novels of the late 20th century.
Following the advice of a sympathetic editor at Lippincott, her then publisher, she revised the initial draft of her novel in ways that would, as it turned out, make it more palatable to a wide audience—and ultimately to the student assignees who are now the book’s main readers. She changed its setting from the awakening 1950s to the bygone 1930s. She assigned its narrative voice to the young girl Scout, daughter of the novel’s hero, the lawyer Atticus Finch, who was said to be modeled on Harper’s own father, A.C. Lee. Only Atticus grew into a paragon father, fair, wise and just.
The novel’s politics came close to William Faulkner’s paternalistic view of the race problem, expressed in a comment he made to a friend about his novel Intruder in the Dust, which had a similar premise to Lee’s: “the white people in the South, before the North or the govt. or anybody else, owe and must pay a responsibility to the negro.”
In real life, the most effective demands to change the system originated with segregation’s African-American victims. It was they, supported by northern liberals and the federal government, who would be the decisive agents of change. Nevertheless—and I’ll return to Faulkner here, paraphrasing his famous quote about the past: Segregation is not dead. It’s not even past.
To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee’s most famous novel. It was also her only one, other than Go Set A Watchman, which was purportedly discovered among her papers by her lawyer and published in July 2015. Some who knew her questioned her mental competence to approve the publication of what was considered an early, aborted version of Mockingbird, in which Atticus is portrayed, perhaps more true to his prototype, as a diehard segregationist.
The overwhelming success of Mockingbird wrenched Lee from small-town obscurity and made her so wealthy that she never needed to write another book. The novel ultimately sold more than 40 million copies and inducted her into America’s one-book-success authors club, joining J.D. Salinger with Catcher in the Rye, Ross Lockridge with Raintree County, Thomas Heggen with Mister Roberts, and others.
Although she recoiled from the fame that rolled over her like a great wave, she never let it destroy her. She retreated behind the barriers protecting her privacy erected by her Monroeville friends and family; or escaped to New York, where she could walk the streets unrecognized. But her great one-off success did apparently render her incapable of writing another novel (as it did other members of the one-book club).
She spent the rest of her days quietly, punctuated by a momentous side trip to Kansas to help her childhood friend Truman Capote research his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, which became Monroeville’s second blockbuster. She made a significant contribution to it, which she felt that Capote never adequately recognized. The tension between them destroyed their friendship.
As the fellow said, nothing fails like success.