Almost anyone can throw words together and refer to themselves as a writer; few, however, can write with the kind of profundity required to withstand the test of time. But for one woman from Monroeville, Alabama, writing came as naturally as breathing. Nelle Harper Lee cemented her place in literary history when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, a book which dared to confront America’s racial injustice.
Within a year of its publication, Mockingbird won Lee the Pulitzer Prize and has maintained a place on the bestseller list ever since. Readers have continued to delight in a story about a tomboy named Scout, her older brother Jem, and their father Atticus. Indeed, Atticus’ decision to defend an African American male falsely accused of raping a white woman has been considered one of the most heroic deeds in contemporary literature.
Writing about such weighty issues could not have been easy for Lee, especially living in the deep South. Whatever her reasons, she felt it necessary to illustrate the problems taking place in an inhumane society where the color of one’s skin determined their worth as a citizen.
After the success of Mockingbird, Harper Lee all but disappeared leaving readers to ponder why. As much as we would have relished seeing other titles penned by her, we have to imagine the immense pressure she would have been under to do so. Not many authors strike lightning with their first manuscript, and perhaps Lee felt it an impossibility to try and compete with herself.
But in 2015, word spread that Harper Lee did in fact have another manuscript ready for publication. Go Set a Watchman, written before Mockingbird, had previously been turned down by publishers. Although a huge scandal ensued on whether or not the book should be released, fans flocked to bookstores to secure their copy. The book met with mixed reviews due in part to the portrayal of Atticus Finch, whose flawed character traits seemed the total antithesis of how readers first came to know him.
Nelle Harper Lee passed away on February 19, 2016, at the age of eighty-nine. Like many other heavyweights in literature, her legacy will undoubtedly endure, as will her poignant message about human frailty.
-Tara Lynn Marta