“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,” Atticus Finch tells his daughter, Scout, in one of the most memorable passages of the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” — “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Few people in the world could claim to really understand Harper Lee, the novel’s elusive author, who died Feb. 19 at 89 in Monroeville, Ala.
She withdrew from public life shortly after her book was published in 1960, only to reappear in old age with the controversial release of “Go Set a Watchman,” a manuscript identified as a long-lost early draft of the book that decades earlier had vaulted her to literary renown and, decades later, remained at the center of the discussion of race in America.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” a coming-of-age story set in the Depression-era South where Ms. Lee grew up, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961 and sold more than 40 million copies, becoming one of the most cherished novels in modern American literature. One oft-cited survey asked respondents to name the book that most profoundly affected their lives. Ms. Lee’s novel ranked near the top, not far behind the Bible.
The novel arrived amid the growing movement for civil rights and drew much of its resonance from its hero, Atticus, a lawyer who nobly and futilely defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in their segregated town. For many, Atticus was embodied by actor Gregory Peck, who received an Academy Award for his performance in the 1962 movie based on Ms. Lee’s book.
“What that one story did, more powerfully than one hundred speeches possibly could, was change the way we saw each other, and then the way we saw ourselves,” President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama said in a joint statement. “Through the uncorrupted eyes of a child, she showed us the beautiful complexity of our common humanity, and the importance of striving for justice in our own lives, our communities, and our country.
“Ms. Lee changed America for the better.”
It was widely understood that Ms. Lee modeled Atticus on her father, Amasa Coleman “A.C.” Lee, a lawyer who, like his daughter’s fictional character, served in the state legislature and favored pocket watches. Scout, the book’s narrator, was believed to have been, more or less, Ms. Lee.
In the 55 years between the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the release in July 2015 of “Go Set a Watchman,” few Americans came of age without meeting Atticus; his doomed client, Tom Robinson; Scout and her brother, Jem; their peculiar friend, Dill; and Boo Radley — the mysterious neighborhood shut-in whom the children try to coax from the shadows.
Atticus, in particular, was beloved as the ideal father, even the ideal man in a society that was profoundly flawed, but, through wisdom such as his, perhaps redeemable.
The reverence surrounding Ms. Lee’s book compounded the shock, edging on disbelief, when readers learned the contents of “Go Set a Watchman,” a literary juggernaut pre-ordered online in numbers topped only by J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. (Courtesy Washington Post)