Monday, July 13, 2015

Harper Lee

It is hard to imagine anyone today who has had more influence on white Americans' views of race relations than a quiet 89-year-old woman who is in declining health in Monroeville, Alabama.

I speak of course of Harper Lee.  

Lee is the youngest of four children raised by a small-town lawyer who, it has been reported, defended two black men who were accused of murder, convicted and hanged.  It is said that he was so angered by the experience that he abandoned the law to run the local newspaper. 

Her lifelong friend, Truman Capote, lived next door.  (You may remember him, the gay author of "In Cold Blood" who died in 1984.)  The two were avid readers and writers, and we can guess that their friendship, like her upbringing in a segregated town in the American South, sharpened her sensitivity to outsiders and fury at bigotry.

Lee wrote a first novel in 1957.  Like many first novels, it was autobiographical, effectively  a declaration of independence from her father and revulsion at the racism of her small town.  Many years later, this novel, "Go Set a Watchman," is being released tomorrow.

Lee's only published novel till now, a rethinking of that early effort, was released in 1960.  

That book, "To Kill a Mockingbird" has been required reading for almost three generations of American schoolchildren.  It was the right book at the right -- too late, but finally right -- moment.  

To Kill a Mockingbird

America was at a crossroads when this novel came out.  The Supreme Court had declared unanimously in 1954 that "separate but equal" schools for black and white students were not equal and that schools must be integrated.  

It took years and the intervention of federal troops for the decision to be enforced.

Here's an image from Little Rock in 1957.

And another from New Orleans in 1960.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" was the coming-of-age story of a white girl in the 1930s south.  Her father, a lawyer, defended a black man falsely accused of rape and was reviled by townspeople for his efforts.  The daughter observed the trial from the black seating section of the courtroom and watched as the black man was convicted.  The mockingbird of the title was a symbol of innocence lost, its lesson was of hard-gained wisdom.

According to a friend, "If you ask Harper Lee, she says it's a love story. It models how a professional person should conduct himself in the face of prejudice, and it has therefore influenced the younger people."

The book, and the Gregory Peck movie that followed in 1962, forced white America to look at those pictures from Little Rock and New Orleans.  It made people want to be like the honorable lawyer and not the angry bigots shouting at innocent children.

Go Set a Watchman

Some people are surprised that the first draft of Lee's book is being released.  They wonder if she really wanted "Go Set a Watchman" to be published.  She did, after all, live for 55 years without indicating such any such wish.  Why wait until after the trusted sister who managed her business affairs had died and Lee was mostly deaf, blind, moving in a wheelchair and failing of memory?

People involved with the new book have said that she is "happy as hell" about its publication. 

Reports tell us that "Go Set a Watchman" deals with a young adult white woman who returns from New York to her small southern hometown.  She is infuriated by the town's white people, most especially her father, for their casual, ingrained racism in the period following Brown v. the Board of Education. 

All these years later, Harper Lee is giving us a new, and yet older, view of the lawyer who taught us to be better people.  It almost certainly is true to its period, but for me it sounds like a painful piece to read.

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