Saying Goodbye to One of the Greats

by Emily Zimmer

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” (Atticus Finch from “To Kill A Mockingbird”)

“Harper Lee,” (Photo: Kennedy Library, September 27, 2013.
“Harper Lee,” (Photo: Kennedy Library, September 27, 2013.

One often tries to escape the memories of their high school experience. The overcrowded hallways filled with fifteen-year-old “soul mates” kissing on their walks to class; the cafeteria’s plastic trays, indistinguishable foods, the silent struggle of finding a place to sit among eye-roll-worthy peers; the gymnasium that served as the stage for dodge ball games that never ended well.

Years pass and one may finally forget most of what haunted them through his already haunting puberty riddled years. But a few memories manage to avoid the black hole of those “forgotten years.” For me, that’s one English teacher and the enthusiastic teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee’s novel incites an emotional experience through her inclusion of racial injustice and class issues. Scout, our six-year-old narrator, paints a portrait of a time riddled with injustices. The story presents a black man wrongly accused of raping a white girl in a small town in Alabama. Scout’s father, Atticus, instills lessons of morality and truth within his daughter as he takes on the accused man’s case. Lee’s Scout captured the attention of countless readers with her youthful innocence and obvious spunk.

The love felt by many for the author and her work grew increasingly obvious this past Friday, February 19th, when Harper Lee passed away at the age of 89. Countless sources lamented the loss and celebrated Lee’s work. Teachers, writers, former students, and anyone who had once felt the impact of her work filled social media, news, and other online pages attempting to summarize the importance and resonance of Pulitzer Prize winning work.

HarperCollins, her publisher, released a statement following her death:

“The world knows Harper Lee was a brilliant writer but what many don’t know is that she was an extraordinary woman of great joyfulness, humility and kindness. She lived her life the way she wanted to- in private- surrounded by books and the people who loved her. I will always cherish the time I spent with her.”

Prior to her passing, Lee had experienced a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and took most of her vision and hearing. Yet even in her ailing condition, she remained in highest regards among others in the literary world.

Harper Lee wrote in her first book, “people in their right minds never take pride in their talents.” This line, perhaps, could be applied to Ms. Lee herself. She was well known to be reclusive. Her public appearances were a rarity over her later years. She was said to distrust reporters for skewing quotes, and this is the likely cause of her pariah-like approach.

Yet, before her disappearance into attempted anonymity, Lee spoke out about the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. She once told a radio interviewer, back in 1964, four years after the publication of the novel, “I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird.’ I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it well enough to give me encouragement.”

She maintained a humble approach towards her work, seemingly embodying her character Ms. Maudie’s quote about never taking pride in their talents. Talent, in the case of Lee, cannot be denied, though it was rather arrested in its appearance following the publication.

A second novel by Harper Lee was released this past year, titled Go Set a Watchman, and was met with both criticism and skepticism. The criticism arrives as many question the ideals of the characters, the beloved Scout and her father, Atticus, aged twenty years from when they first appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Though this work was apparently written prior to the creation of her prize-winning novel, some wonder if it Lee intended it for publication. Many greeted its release with skepticism due to Lee’s poor state of health and questioned her true consent in the matters, asking if she was simply taken advantage of by the publishing industry. This remains unanswered, but the new release still managed to garner an impressive amount of sales in its first few months available. The question of its necessity or quality remains up to the discretion of the reader.

Regardless of more recent events, one must celebrate this influential writer the literary world has lost, and perhaps reopen the pages of the novel that entranced you in your younger years.

Emily Zimmer is a junior studying English and Speech Language Hearing Science at the University of Connecticut. She is on the fiction panel at the Long River Review.

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