As we were finishing production on this week’s show, the bulletin crossed the wires announcing the death of Harper Lee at age 89. She was a giant of American literature and one of the most important chroniclers of the evolution of the American South in the mid-twentieth century.
There are very few high schools in this country that don’t make her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” required reading and whether a kid grew up in Portland, Maine or Portland, Oregon, the high desert country of Arizona, or the inner-city of Chicago, their view of the South was largely informed by what Harper Lee wrote.
She grew up in Monroeville, Alabama – a small town midway between Montgomery and Mobile. Her closest childhood friend and next-door neighbor was a fragile young boy who became another of the great giants of literature – Truman Capote. As children, the two of them took turns pounding out stories on a typewriter that Lee’s father brought home from his office.
Lee left Alabama for New York City in the 1950s. It was there that she wrote “Mockingbird,” drawing on her experiences back home in Monroeville. She struggled to get it right. At one point she grew so frustrated with her manuscript that she threw it out the window of her apartment into a blinding New York snow storm. When she called her editor Tay Hohoff to describe what she’d just done, Hohoff ordered her to march down to the street to pick up all the pages.
We are all better because she did.
Lee moved back to Monroeville many years ago and lived in relative quiet, shunning the public spotlight. But she became the center of a whirlwind of controversy when it was announced that a previously unpublished manuscript – which she’d written before turning to “Mockingbird” – turned up. The first concerns about the book, called “Go Set a Watchman,” were over whether Lee hereslf – who was in declining health – really wanted it published. But the controversy grew even more when “Go Set a Watchman” was published last summer. While it featured the major characters of “Mockingbird,” it was set two decades further along in time. Scout, now a grown woman, is on a visit to her fictional hometown, Maycombe, Alabama. During her stay she learns to her great dismay that her beloved father – the hero of “Mockingbird” – is more a man of his times than she’d realized. He’s a member of the White Citizens’ Council and has many racist views.
The first readers who picked up “Watchman” were shocked by this transformation of the man who had stood against his entire town to defend a black man accused of rape in “Mockingbird.” What to make of this new version of Atticus?
That’s the conversation we had at the time the book was published last summer, with Joseph Crespino and Chuck Reece. Crespino is the Jimmy Carter Chair of American and Southern History at Emory University. Reece is the editor of the online magazine Bitter Southerner.