By Mrinal Rajaram
Nelle Harper Lee passed away on the morning of 19 February. She died in her sleep in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
The year was 1960. The book was To Kill A Mockingbird. Met with instant commercial success and critical acclaim, this bittersweet novel about childhood innocence and innocence lost would transcend boundaries to make a place in our collective conscience. Told with a compassionate and insightful voice, its diminutive author from the American South would receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961.
But the novel, with its subject of racial tensions simmering at its core, would be the subject of some controversy. Not all reviews were favourable, either. At the time of its publication Flannery O’Connor said, “I think for a child's book it does all right. It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they're reading a child's book. Somebody ought to say what it is.” Lee’s childhood friend and author, Truman Capote, would write fondly of her on the cover of Mockingbird’s very first edition.
Rumours, that he was in fact the driving force behind the masterpiece, have done the rounds for years. In spite of it all, the book has enjoyed a unique staying power. Like all great art, it gets more and more relevant as time wears on. More than half a century after it made its way into a number of living rooms across America and the world, To Kill a Mockingbird remains a true beacon of literature.
What makes a writer great? Is it a combination of superlative art and high productivity? Should a writer aim to pen ten good books as opposed to one absolute masterpiece? There are no easy answers here, but I would argue that if you had one great book in you, it is worth far more than a hundred good ones.
Up until last year, Lee’s only shot at authorship remained Mockingbird. For decades she claimed she would never write another book. Somewhere along the way, she attempted more fiction, but shelved the writing midway because she wasn’t happy enough with the results. In 2015, Go Set a Watchman made it to the stands amid considerable controversy. At 88, nearly fifty-five years after her first book, the much awaited follow-up was upon the world.
Some believe that the writer who shunned the public eye for most of her life may have been pressured into consenting to the book’s release. Though I have not read it yet, Go Set a Watchman is said to be, in many ways, the first draft of what would eventually become Mockingbird.
I was a late bloomer when it came to reading. It was only when I turned seventeen that I began poring over rows upon rows of books that lined the varnished wooden shelves of my home. It didn’t take me long to realise the things I had been missing out on for all this time. It was in the midst of this newfound love for literature that I picked up a book that would have a profound impact on me in the years to follow. I’d heard of it time and time again, so its title and author were no strangers to me.
As I commenced reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I was filled with a sense of immense wonder. In its first few chapters, we are introduced to the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama. The precocious six-year-old, Scout Finch, lives out her seemingly idyllic childhood with brother, Jem, and father, Atticus. The children fill their days by attempting to draw the reclusive and mysterious Boo Radley from out of his house. Calpurnia, the kids’ endearing black nanny, assumes the role of a mother-figure throughout the narrative.
When Atticus defends a black man accused of raping a young white girl, Scout and Jem are exposed to the harsh realities of race and racial inequality. Abounding with much humour, infinite wisdom and unforgettable characters, Harper Lee’s moving tale offers readers great hope even while exploring some of mankind’s darkest prejudices.
In 1949, a young Lee moved to New York in the hopes of becoming a writer. In those early years of struggle she wrote in her spare time while supporting herself with a regular job. She found an agent in 1956 for a series of long stories that had been written along the way. But it was a stroke of genuine providence on Christmas that would seemingly alter the course of the young writer’s life.
She received a gift of one year’s pay from friends, accompanied by a note that read, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” By the spring of 1957, Lee had already submitted the first draft of the iconic story to her agent. The editorial team of the J B Lippincott Company had warned Lee not to expect much in terms of sales at the time of the novel’s publication.
Much to her surprise, Mockingbird became an instant success upon its release, throwing the young author into the spotlight. Millions of copies in sales, a number of translations and a Pulitzer meant she was one of the most sought after writers around. But Harper Lee was never one to embrace celebrity. She declined to speak at public events, reasoning that it was better to be silent than to be a fool. Within a few years of Mockingbird’s publication, she would give up granting interviews altogether.
“Mockingbird Groupies” continue to make the long trek to Monroeville in search of the elusive author, even to this day.
1962 would see the novel adapted to the screen. Lee was very pleased with the Academy Award-winning film that would go on to become a classic in its own right. Gregory Peck and Harper Lee would remain lifelong friends after first meeting on the sets of the movie. As much as I admire the film version, there are some elements of the book that fail to be captured on-screen.
From the first few pages of her classic Bildungsroman to the memorable last lines, I was gaining an insight into Harper Lee the person. And I can say without a shadow of doubt, I was the better for it.
The words of the immortal Atticus Finch still ring in my years: “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It's knowing you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
This specific quote has great significance to me because (though uttered in very different context) it can so easily refer to struggling artists and writers. Based heavily on the memorable characters she grew up with, this superlative autobiographical novel continues to stand the test of time.
Through her sensitive, honest and empathetic vision, her memory and her masterpiece will live on forever, inspiring countless generations to pick up that proverbial pen and set forth. Clichés are there for a reason. And the reason so many readers still mention To Kill a Mockingbird in their list of favourite books is because the creation and its author remain truly unforgettable entities.
The author is a writer and freelance journalist from Chennai. His journalistic work has appeared in The Times of India, The Economic Times, Ritz Magazine and Score. His first short story was published in The Madras Mag in March ’15.