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The Legend of Harperlee

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What makes Harper Lee one of the greatest authors of our times, and this despite the fact that all she has to her credit are only two novels?


Harper Lee’s first novel was the all-time classic, one of the best sold and most reprinted – ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and the second, the more recent one – ‘Go Set a Watchman’, which is supposedly a blueprint that she initially submitted to her publisher.

The draft was not approved and was kept away and on the advice of her publisher, she decided to write yet another version that was to be her debut book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, which sold more than 40 million copies around the world, and earned her a Pulitzer Prize. She was as revered as was debated if she was just one of those one-book wonder until last year when her second book opened to critical acclaim.

Slavery was abolished in the US in 1865, however, racism and discrimination as an underlying ill has existed in the American society in varying degrees at all times. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, published in the year 1960, is the story of a lawyer Atticus Finch, who is against racism and strives for the legal rights of the poor and the black population and hence is pretty gracious to his housekeeper Calpurnia, who is, like all housekeepers of the times, a black and very caring to the motherless children – Jean Louise Finch (Scout) and her brother, Jem.
A still from the movie.jpg

The story in addition to dwelling upon Atticus’ fight to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, who is accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell (that takes an ugly turn when the judge convicts him despite strong evidence not to), the book is also about the ideal father of the young children who are taught to live a responsible life, yet enjoy the free spirit of exploring the unknown and inherit the liberal views of their father.

The engrossing novel that is admired for its narrative skill is also a strong voice against the ingrained Southern prejudices and the individualistic young Jem, who at one point is seen fearlessly defending Tom Robinson from a mob intent on killing him. She is ever enthusiastic and inquisitive, always ready to stand her own with her brother and their friend, Dill, during every childhood adventure at Maycomb, Alabama.

While, nowhere did Lee acknowledge that the novel is autobiographical; there are instances and experiences of her life that find a place in her book. And this includes her father, who was a lawyer and defended two black people, who were too, later convicted.

The childhood experiences do come from her own life and that is so much visible in her description of the sleepy village in Maycomb County where she herself grew up. The author avoided public attention after the stupendous success of her book and would repeatedly insist that she had no intention of releasing further works. This was until her second book released amidst much discussion and controversy, last year.

It is of common knowledge, especially after her book ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was published in 2015, that as a debut author Lee did work on many drafts. In fact, after the original draft was first submitted to her publisher, Therese von Hohoff Torrey, also known as Tay Hohoff, she suggested a few changes.


Her contention was that the draft looked more like a chronicle of events and evidently, while the changes were being made it was also decided that Atticus Finch, who was originally characterised as a racist and member of Ku Klux Klan that works against civil rights organisations (as revealed in ‘Go Set…’), was transformed into the liberal, heroic Atticus, we all came to admire and idolise. Whose decision was it? We wouldn’t be able to know. However, in one of her rare interviews, Lee admitted to being unsure of her talents as the first-time author. “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.”

‘Go Set a Watchman’ did many things. To begin with, even as it shocked many an admirer of the hero Atticus, the book was a seal of approval for the author who was otherwise known and eulogised for her first and the only novel. It talks about the 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch, returning home to her aged father.

The homecoming is fraught with bitter-sweet experiences with memories of childhood and revelations that are not so pleasant. The most shocking amongst the latter is, of course, the discovery of her father, Atticus Finch as being a racist. At one point he says, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and ¬churches and theaters?”

‘Go Set …’ is not as easy a read as “To Kill a Mockingbird’, yet it reinforces Harper Lee as a sensitive writer, full of wisdom, passion, humour and with brilliant storytelling skill. The novel helps in a better understanding of the classic ‘To Kill…’ and dwells deeper into the relations and inner struggles of the characters.

Most amazingly, the way she has re-created the childhood of the idealistic and strong-willed Jean from her draft into this fiery kid Scout of her first novel is ingenious and one understands this smooth transition after reading the 2015-published novel. ‘Go Set…’ is definitely more grown-up and reflective in its approach while the first one is more a narration that is in the face and leaves little to imagination even as it endears to the reader with lovable characters.

Both the books comment on the deep-rooted racism issues plaguing the South of America, but ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is more dispassionate in its narrative. Harper Lee had written only two books in the history of literature, yet she was one of the bestselling novelists, known to have been quite influential too.

Her book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was made into a film with Gregory Peck in the lead in 1962 that went onto become a huge hit, winning Academy Awards and till date the book and the film are considered valid reference material to the times in which the story was set.

The book continues to be reprinted to meet the demand for copies and the debate continues – if people like the idealistic Finch better or the one who is more realistic for his times as was revealed in 2015.   Meanwhile, Harper Lee who was unwell for some time now succumbed to illness at a nursing home less than a mile from the house in which she had grown up in Monroeville, Alabama, on February 19.
First published in The Hans India
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