Writer Harper Lee died today in Monroeville, Alabama. She was 89.
I’d be willing to bet good money that most obituaries about Ms. Lee will begin with the words: “Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, . . ..” She was, and always will be, associated with that one book. Why not? It is indisputably one of the greatest works of fiction by an American writer, and also a book that captured a moment in history, and a time and place, so vividly, and sketched characters so indelibly memorable, that it is one of those books that you would gladly read over and over again. No one who has read that book will ever forget the adventurous Scout, the thoughtful Jem, the quiet dignity of falsely accused Tom Robinson, the mysterious Boo Radley, and the noble Atticus Finch.
And, of course, To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books that did far more than what most books ever even aspire to do: it helped to change the world. By quietly telling a story of one instance of rank and sickening racial injustice in a small town in Alabama, To Kill A Mockingbird illuminated the dark underbelly of the American Dream and the blindered perspective of 1950s America. The book, published in 1960, was one of the cultural elements that forced America to deal with the Jim Crow South and the heinous mistreatment of African-Americans in the states of the old Confederacy, and in the rest of the country as well. What other novels have accomplished so much? Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps — but the list is not a long one.
Rest in peace, Harper Lee. You have made your mark, left a legacy that will endure, and served your conscience and your country well.