On February 19, 2016, a fabulous and powerful woman in writing passed away. Harper Lee, author of the brilliant literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird, died in her sleep last week at the age of 89.
When I first heard the news that the author of one of my most favorite books of all time had died, I felt a strong pang of sympathy for her and her family. But it wasn't until that night that I found myself absentmindedly pulling my old paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird off the shelf that I really started feeling the weight of who this world had lost. I flipped the pages aside, searching numbly for the highlighted quote, wondering if I'd missed it. There it was, highlighted in pink instead of blue because apparently I'd lost my favorite color all those years ago when I saved this line for future viewing. I read the words silently in my head, but then I found myself speaking them aloud.
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
There was that famous quote, and then there was another I found highlighted in my book, again, highlighted in pink.
"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."
I thought about those words for a while, reading into them while thinking about Harper Lee's passing. I came to the conclusion that Harper Lee was even more courageous than I'd thought. She'd written one of the most beloved novels in history during a time when writing wasn't exactly ideal or practical. It's authors like her who inspire me everyday with my own writing, and staring into the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is everything I want to achieve in my own novel work someday, I knew I had to write this tribute for a woman who moved me and millions of others with her words.
Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926. She grew up in Monroeville, Alabama as the youngest of four children. As a child, she was a tomboy in a small town, where everything was an adventure. Her father was a lawyer and a member of the Alabama state legislature. He also owned part of the local newspaper. For most of Harper Lee's life, her mother suffered from mental illness that was believed to be bipolar disorder.
What was originally written as a manuscript, To Kill a Mockingbird was published as a novel in July of 1960. The story's center character, a young girl named Scout, was like Harper Lee in her youth: adventurous, daring, curious and had much to learn. In one of the book's main plots, Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill seek to answer the mysterious questions regarding their somewhat infamous neighbor, Boo Radley. However, the book is more than just a coming-of-age story. Another part of the novel, the more in depth part, reflects the racial prejudices in the South. Scout and Jem's father, Atticus Finch, stands in court to defend a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman, demanding that he get a fair trial and not be killed by angry townsmen.
Shortly after the novel was put out, a movie was put together based on Harper Lee's beautiful and moving work of art. Earning eight Academy Award nominations, the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird won three awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck's portrayal of Atticus. This character is also said to be based on Harper Lee's father.
While the book was quite obviously a hundred times better, I enjoyed this movie very much. I thought the characters were cast beautifully and the film was very well put together. I tip my hat to you, Horton Foote.
Many years later, after Harper Lee lived a long and fulfilling life, she put out a squeal to her beloved novel called, Go Set a Watchman in July of 2015. To Kill a Mockingbird might have been Harper Lee's first published work, but it wasn't her first written piece. Go Set a Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, taking place many years into the Mockingbird character's future. Scout is 26 in this second novel, on her way back home to Maycomb from New York City to see her father, Atticus who has gotten himself into trouble in a court case.
I haven't read this sequel myself, though it is on my list of novels to read. I know it was Harper Lee's last project before she died, and our last chance to hear what she wanted the world to know. That's reason enough for me to buy the book.
Those are the works Harper Lee left behind, and a huge part of her legacy. But it's not just Scout's words that Harper Lee has touched me with. It's lessons like this:
"As you grow up, always tell the truth, do no harm to others, and don't think you are the most important being on earth. Rich or poor, you then can look anyone in the eye and and say, 'I'm probably no better than you, but I'm certainly your equal.'"
Words said by a woman who has had a lot of years to live and learn, and then turns around to give a piece of her wisdom off to us: the younger generation.
Harper Lee, you will be greatly missed, as you are also greatly appreciated. I'm thankful to have been given the chance to read your work and learn from your lessons. I hope to someday reach people with my writing the way you have, and make an impact on somebody's life and perspective. Thank you for all you did, for all the passion and beauty you put in your writing. I pray you rest in peace.