‘Mockingbird’ was Enough, Harper Lee

Harper Lee, I forgive you for publishing only one novel until the last year of your life. After writing To Kill a Mockingbird, what else was there to say?

Like many fans of your novel, I was forced to read it in eighth grade English class, and I have been picking it up and putting it down ever since. If any book can be called the Great American Novel, it is Mockingbird, even though it is loved not for its greatness but for its smallness.

It is a little story of a little girl in a little town, but in it you created the story of a nation. To read To Kill a Mockingbird is to settle into the hot and humid streets of Macomb, Alabama for a while, a place that is not loveable exactly, but it is comfortable enough. You evoked the characters and the setting so richly, they surround us as you lead us down your novel’s two storylines. The coming-of-age tale of an innocent girl puzzled by a mysterious man who never leaves his house woos us. The brutal apartheid she discovers in the Jim Crow South draws us back.

You were not the most incisive writer to tackle racism in America. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison did it more powerfully before you. Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Alice Walker did it more vividly after you. But you were a white woman, and a Southerner, and for white readers, at least, you could hold up a mirror and show their world’s brutality in a way that they would understand.

You mastered that particularly Southern ability to love a place despite its most atrocious qualities. What you found to love and hate in Alabama was — and is — still abundant throughout this country.

You showed us a world where evil hid behind kind faces and goodness emerged from unexpected corners. You showed us a moral path that could cut straight through dusty streets or wind through country lanes and dark alleys.

When Go Set a Watchman, your long-hidden sequel, emerged suspiciously last year, I devoured it upon arrival. Most Mockingbird fans didn’t seem to care for it. Watchman lacked the tenderness of its predecessor. It was ragged. It felt unfinished. Yet I admired the way you ravaged Atticus, the pillar of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the Civil Rights era of the South, even his kind heart and open mind had chilling limitations.

When my stepsons were old enough, I foisted To Kill a Mockingbird on them, as it had been forced on me. I doubt it changed their worlds as it changed mine, and I don’t expect it to. The Jim Crow South seems as distant to them Huckleberry Finn’s Dixie seemed to me. A nation split between black and white seems monochromatic as they grow up in a minority-majority county where Asians, Latinos, African-Americans, Middle Easterners and immigrants from all around the world outnumber whites.

For me, though, Macomb will always be, as it was for Dill, a summer home full of friendship, innocence and ugliness. It is a place where the best and worst in this country live as neighbors and where goodness and evil are two faces of the same man in the dark.

That was all you ever needed to write, Harper Lee. What else is there to say?