The Day I Almost Met Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t the kind of book that one expects to find on college reading lists. Middle school? Perhaps. High school English? Sure. In the 2006 motion picture, Capote, there’s a scene at a New York cocktail party where the Harper Lee character is asked about her new novel, “It’s a kid’s book, isn’t it?” 
Yes,” she says. Then she smiles. And she walks away.

Now that Harper Lee has passed away, away from Mockingbird and her recent, heavily scrutinized publication of Go Set a Watchman, and away from all us, we have an opportunity to look at her legacy anew. For the past nine years, I’ve been teaching Harper Lee’s only real novel to undergraduates at the University of Michigan in a class on the Southern Novel. And I think that’s only going to happen more, since in my experience, what never fails to happen, no matter their race or social class or background, is that college students, whether they are reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time ever, or are re-reading it for the umpteenth time, simply love the book. Faulkner may confound them, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker may draw up their emotions, and James Dickey may turn their stomachs, but they all like the story of Scout and Atticus, fully and often forever.

Part of this staying power comes from Lee’s exceptional storytelling, which she displays on the very first page. “When enough years had gone by to enable to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident,” Lee wrote, speaking as Scout. Then she gives us her brother’s take. “He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.” Who doesn’t want to find out what happens next?

And part of it is her gorgeous language as well, and the high-wire act that Lee pulled off as a writer, shifting seamlessly back between the voice of Scout, the child, and an older Scout, looking back many years later. And when the words are right, they sing: “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.” This isn’t just a kid’s book. It’s an American classic.

But not, I think, for the usual reasons.

When To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960, the nation was in the middle of its great mid-century struggle over civil rights. The sit-in movement was launched that same year, while the Freedom Rides began in 1961. Then came Albany and Birmingham, Selma and Memphis. Though it was set in the 1930s, To Kill a Mockingbird spoke to the compelling national issue of the day, and did so eloquently. James Carville, who grew up in Louisiana, said that Harper Lee’s book changed his entire outlook on civil rights. “When I read it,” he said, “I knew that they were right, and that we were wrong.”

From the perspective of our own age, however, a time of Ferguson and Baltimore, Charleston and Black Lives Matter, To Kill a Mockingbird can seem quaint and old-fashioned. In truth, Harper Lee’s African American characters, with the exception of Calpurnia, are the weakest in the book. In matters of race, Lee wasn’t particularly insightful. There was just too much that, as a young white girl growing up in pre-war Alabama, she didn’t have access to.

But, in the long run, I’m not sure that will matter.

Because To Kill a Mockingbird is not so much a book about race as it is a book about childhood, and fathers and daughters, small town life, and right and wrong. It is a classic because it deals, head on, with universal problems, and universal truths. William Faulkner, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, said that it was the writer’s duty “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” and that “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” That is To Kill a Mockingbird in a nutshell.

Sadly, for Harper Lee, the price of her literary triumph proved to be exceedingly high. She detested the limelight, cared little about money, and spent much of the rest of her life as a literary recluse, hostage to (or perhaps escaping from) her book’s astonishing success. She may have written one of the great books of American literature, but it did not seem to bring her much joy. The last thing she wanted was attention.

That was something I knew, maybe twenty years ago, when I visited Monroeville, the small southwestern Alabama county seat that was both Harper Lee’s hometown, and the inspiration for Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. I made a late afternoon visit, of course, to the courthouse. Then, after visiting the public library where I scared up the actual street addresses at which both Harper Lee and Truman Capote had lived, I set out for their childhood homes. Both the houses had sadly been demolished, but I lingered for a minute in the yards, staring at the foundations, thinking about all of the great American literature that had roots on this one block.

Then, needing a bite to eat, I pulled into one of Monroeville’s few open restaurants — a Hardee’s — and ordered a burger and fries. When I sat down in the booth, I looked across the near empty restaurant and saw an older woman, with short grey hair and glasses, sitting a few tables away.

It was Harper Lee.

And as much as I wanted to go over and say hello, I stayed put. I knew that she was an exceptionally private person, and I didn’t want to intrude. She had already given me, and millions of readers, something wonderful and rare, and as I saw it, she didn’t need to give anyone anything else. Ever.

And then it happened.

When I started to leave, I stole one more glance her way.

Only this time, she looked at me.

Then she smiled.

If you could have shared one memory with Harper Lee about reading To Kill a Mockingbird, what would it have been?

Scott Ellsworth is the author of The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph, published by Little, Brown and Company. Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your favorite independent booksellers.

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