Emily’s Editorial: Legacy of Harper Lee

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Emily Berthiaume, Editor-in-Chief

On February 19, 2016, the world lost a brilliant mind when Nelle Harper Lee passed away at the age of 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Her debut novel To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most important and influential books ever written about the American South, and is considered one of the most beloved and widely-taught works of fiction to this day.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s immediate success when it was published in 1960 overwhelmed Lee, who never wrote another novel. Labeled by a recluse by the press, she lived quietly in her small Alabama town for the remainder of her life, refusing to share her life with the outside world.  Lee never expected any success from Mockingbird, and even told an interviewer in 1964 she “hoped for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers.” However, her fame only continued to grow after the 1962 film adaption of the novel starring Gregory Peck was released and became similarly hugely popular.

In February 2015, Lee’s publisher announced plans to publish a manuscript Lee wrote in 1957 entitled Go Set a Watchman. The sequel of sorts of Mockingbird was actually written before the original novel, but explored what happens when Scout returns to her hometown as an adult. Despite enormous sales, the book received only moderate reviews, in part because of the fact that literary hero Atticus Finch was portrayed as a now-racist old man. The circumstances of the publishing of the novel was also suspicious, with some speculating Lee’s agent took advantage of her old age. However, the mediocrity of Watchman could not diminish Lee’s legacy and reputation as the author of one of the most well-loved American novels of all time.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in ninth grade for my English class. Although it sounds cliché, as soon as I picked it up I could not put it down until I was finished. To this day it remains the best book I have ever read for a school assignment and one of the favorite books of all time. I was enthralled by the frolicking adventures of Scout and Jem, the moral authority of Atticus Finch, and the honest description of racial tensions in the 1930s Deep South. Fifty years after the publication of the book, the intriguing story still encouraged me, along with all modern readers, to think about what justice truly means and how detrimental being judgmental can be. The profound impact of the book was deeply personal to me, but it also reached much farther than personal connections at the time of publication.

At the time of Mockingbird’s publication in 1960, the Civil Rights Movement was well under way. Today, the book is taught in thousands of classrooms across America as a way to open students’ eyes to not only the extent of historical institutionalized racism in America but also the modern relevancy of Scout’s story and the importance of standing up for what is right, no matter what.

Harper Lee’s legacy and impact on both the literary world and the public cannot be understated. With only one novel, she was able to both reach people on a personal level and convey timeless truths about the horrors of racism, the importance of justice, and the value of integrity. Her legacy will live on for years to come as students just like myself discover the book and let it change their lives and the way they view the world. 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.”

“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.” ”

— Harper Lee