Harper Lee: An appreciation

Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images 2007

I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the first time in sixth grade. I’d read about death before that, but it mostly came in the form of sick friends or elderly grandparents or beloved dogs. It happened because of cancer or flooded creeks or fights with raccoons.

But in this book, I read for the first time about the killing of a man at the hands of others, due to hate and racism.

The death of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, became a landmark in young people’s literature. “To Kill a Mockingbird” became one the most assigned texts in schools across the country, inspiring millions of conversations and essays and book reports about a topic that should be — but isn’t always — taught in schools: racism.

We have Harper Lee to thank for igniting that decades-long discussion.

Lee, who died Friday at 89 years old in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., is without doubt, a literary legend. She came out of nowhere, at age 34, and penned one of the most celebrated books of the 20th century. Then, she went quiet.

The notoriously private author largely left the public eye after her Pulitzer Prize win. The film adaptation, which won several Academy Awards and made Atticus Finch into a moral guide for millions of Americans, magnified the book’s legacy.

As the years passed, rumors swirled about why Lee never produced another novel. The explanations ranged from her reclusive nature — she just couldn’t take the spotlight anymore — to the absurd theory that her childhood friend Truman Capote was actually the author of “Mockingbird.”

(My favorite rebuttal to the Capote theory is that Capote was far too arrogant to have ever allowed someone to win the Pulitzer in his place. Besides, a letter from Capote to Lee makes it quite clear she did the writing.)

And just when it seemed like Lee would leave this earth as the ultimate one-hit wonder, a second book surfaced in a vault of Lee family papers.

It was announced last winter that “Go Set a Watchman,” which Lee wrote before “Mockingbird,” has been discovered by the family lawyer, Tonja Carter.

The manuscript was really a discarded first draft of “Mockingbird.” It featured Scout Finch, a 9-year-old in “Mockingbird,”  in her 20s, returning home to Alabama from New York, and thinking back on her childhood. An early editor encouraged Lee to scrap the older Scout and focus just on the childhood story.

That advice gave shape to the “Mockingbird” we know.

Accusations of elder abuse flew back and forth when news about the “newly rediscovered” manuscript broke. Some claimed Carter was taking advantage of Lee, who lived in a nursing home after suffering a stroke in 2007. The state of Alabama launched an investigation, but ultimately found that Lee was aware of what was happening and did want to see “Watchman” published.

The book hit shelves in July. NPR called it “a mess.” The New York Times called it “a lumpy tale.” The Los Angeles Times deemed it “an apprentice effort [that] falls apart in the second half.” But fans didn’t care. The book sold more than 1 million copies in just its first week.

What most fans cared about was a very different Atticus Finch: Their hero was sullied.

Although Scout is the main character of “Mockingbird,” the film adaptation with Gregory Peck made America fall in love with Atticus. He inspired thousands of people to become lawyers. (Seriously, ask the lawyers you know. At least one will point the finger at Atticus — or they might have, before the new book.)

But the Hollywood adoration of Atticus brushes past some of his racist moments in the “Mockingbird” book. (They’re there. Go back and read it.)

In “Watchman,” it’s even less subtle: It’s revealed that the older Atticus once attended a Klan meeting, and he’s resistant to the desegregation efforts of the 1950s.

People were upset: They didn’t want to read about someone they liked who turned out to be racist.

That, however, may have been one last lesson from Lee.

However you feel about how “Watchman” came to be published, it did spark a whole new round of conversations on racism. Are the figures we idolize deserving? Have we overlooked faults that we shouldn’t have?

Of course, we may still not have heard the last from Lee. Dead authors have a way of continuing to publish these days. (I’m looking at you, Dr. Seuss, Charlotte Bronte, Truman Capote, and the rest.)

Turn on the news now and “Mockingbird” is just as poignant and relevant as it was during the Civil Rights movement in which Lee wrote it, or the segregated 1930s in which she set it.

As we await the likely inevitable release of more “rediscovered” works from Lee, I recommend picking up “To Kill a Mockingbird” again. It still has something to say.