The death of Harper Lee: Why To Kill A Mockingbird still matters

Catherine McNaughton - Regular Columnist

Harper Lee is presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom | Image: Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

“Atticus, he was real nice”
“Most people are, Scout when you finally see them.”

Iconic author Harper Lee tragically passed away, aged 89, on 19th February 2016. Despite being known for one book alone, Lee will be remembered as one of the literary greats of the 20th century.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel that has taken a life of its own. In 2006, the Guardian reported British librarians had voted Harper Lee’s magnum opus as the book “every adult should read before they die.” Its message of compassion, courage and kindness highlighted the best qualities of mankind. Harper Lee’s defining work transcends normal literary triumphs.

A popular book in schools, To Kill a Mockingbird has become a staple of the English GCSE syllabus. For some it could have come to represent the monotonous nature of secondary school education. Yet, it has not. Harper Lee’s work continues to inspire. Michael Morrison, the president of Harper Collins US released a statement on Lee herself, “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.” This humility filtered its way in to her characters.

Lawyer, father, sympathiser – Atticus Finch was a man who encompassed all the virtues a reader would want in their hero. For the law profession in particular Atticus is the pinnacle of integrity and truth. He can also be seen to represent Lee’s own view of the law, having studied it at University of Alabama from 1945 to 1949. The character of Atticus revealed the character of Harper Lee. But, as the reader we are Scout. She personifies innocence and through her eyes we learnt the power of compassion. On the other hand, it’s not simply a question of who is good and who is bad. The novel demonstrates the complexity of ingrained racism and social expectations. Yet it also shows us the power we have to change that. Scout’s interruption of the planned lynch of Tom Robinson, for example, whilst under arrest, converted angry and confused men to the innocent understanding of a child.

Harper Lee’s portrayal of racism in America was easily recognisable in the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement was finally gaining momentum. At a moment of huge change in the lives of African Americans, To Kill a Mockingbird reiterated the message of equality. As Scout simply says, “there’s only one kind of folks, folks.”

Yet, it is not just a story contained to a period of racial strife in Alabama. Nor is it simply a book easily analysed for the purposes of secondary school children. It is so much more. The message of the book is more profound than ever before. Racial discrimination is still rife in the US. This was highlighted by one of Bernie Sander’s presidential nomination commercials. It was dedicated to the “I Can’t Breathe” campaign formed after the murder of innocent black man Eric Garner in July 2014. The “Black Lives Matter” movement, also, epitomises the continued racial frictions that exist most fatally in America. Did Harper Lee know the emotional resonance her story would continue to have? Why have we not progressed? The world in which Scout and Atticus inhabited would have been astounded by the existence of a black president yet would have been all too familiar with the obvious prejudice against African Americans. To Kill a Mockingbird’s lessons can’t still be ignored.

To honour Lee’s memory, we should continue to read, be honest, be compassionate and above all know “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.”

About Catherine McNaughton 6 Articles
Catherine McNaughton is currently a History undergraduate student at the University of York. She enjoys writing about global affairs and the under-represented views in politics. She is also interested in the history of America, particularly in terms of development of diversity. Follow Catherine on Twitter @__CatherineMac