Harper Lee, who died Friday at 89, made her greatest contribution to the culture early; she was 34 when she published To Kill a Mockingbird, her classic novel, and her subsequent decades of near-complete silence seemed to say she’d made her point. Similarly, that book tends to make its impact early on in its readers’ lives. Though not quite for children, Mockingbird's status as a book that’s accessible to young readers makes it, along with masterpieces like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter, the rare classic that speaks to all ages about the less triumphant aspects of American history.
It’s easy for readers caught up in the novel’s mastery—its simplicity—to elide the hurt underpinning it. Scout, a child, narrates a tale of outright racial injustice that manages to humanize just about everyone involved, in spite of their racism. Lee, who lived in Monroeville, Alabama, until her death, used fiction to express a deep but complicated love for the South and its traditions, ones that were rightly slipping away but that made Scout the person she is, a character readers love.
This element of the novel came to the fore in 2015, during a series of events that led Lee, always well known, to become for the first time a trending topic. The publication of Go Set a Watchman, notionally a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird that depicted Scout as an adult woman visiting her aging father, was controversial first for the fact of its existence: Why was Lee breaking her silence now? Was she equipped, given her advanced age and reported poor health, to grant informed consent? And did we really want to risk ruining a novelist’s perfect record? Whatever the answers, the provenance of Watchman was soon overshadowed by the new reading of Atticus Finch as a racist who’d attended KKK meetings.
This is the stuff Scout wasn’t equipped to see earlier—the logical conclusion of Atticus’s showy concern for his white neighbors and frank condescension to his black ones in To Kill a Mockingbird, or his equanimity when his client is unjustly convicted. Those faults could be forgiven, or read as not faults at all, in a book told by a child. For an adult, it was painful stuff, not least because Atticus couldn’t simply be dismissed as a bigot. He was a beloved character, one who even in Go Set a Watchman had a pull on our sympathies.
The loud, widespread and protracted reaction to Go Set a Watchman proves the popular power of Lee’s prose : who ever got upset over a book they didn’t care about? But it also proves her virtuosity. Atticus was always a devilishly complicated character in a story that’s as much an elegy for a South that was already disappearing by 1960 as it is celebration of childhood. A reader could cast a knowing side-eye at just how strenuously he told Scout he was representing a black man for no reason other than that everyone deserves representation, or a reader could interpret this as a passionate statement on behalf of blind justice. Both are right, just as Harper Lee’s South was both morally indefensible and home.
Maybe this accounts for why Lee’s silence had such particular power. Readers wanted something more than just another book. To Kill a Mockingbird has many moments of uplift but no true resolution; the characters are left to muddle through. Whether it was intended as an early draft or a true sequel, Go Set a Watchman only emphasizes the point: Lee’s gifts did not include finding a way to graft comfort onto stories where it doesn’t belong.
One wonders just what Lee would have done with stories with a slightly wider aperture. A writer as technically gifted, as morally rigorous, and as imaginative as Lee could have applied her sensibility to just about any event after the Depression-era South and produced as compelling a story. What would Harper Lee writing about Ferguson look like?
The thing is, we already know. Viewed as the morally complex character he is—a man who does the right thing for the wrong reasons, but who’s governed by a moral compass all the same—Atticus, Lee’s greatest creation, is as timeless as any bit of Scout’s narration, beautifully specific to a place and time but resonant with any moment of upheaval. Atticus’s struggle to, at least, leave the world a better place for Scout even as he fights his own beliefs speaks through the years. Much though we wanted her to, Lee needed say no more.