On Friday, February 19, the world mourned the loss of literary icon, Harper Lee and the following day, at age 89, the beloved author, woman, and friend was laid to rest. The tragic news was confirmed by the mayor’s office in the town where Lee was born, raised, and passed: Monroeville, Alabama. The report was made public by Al.com.
How does one commemorate the life of an author brimming with accomplishments, accolades, and insight? I could spend hundreds of characters recounting definitive biographical details, numerous words reminiscing the immense impact a single author’s piece of literature had on the entire world and anyone that flipped through its pages. I could spend days and countless hours pondering in front of my computer screen, fingers idly hovering the keyboard, knowing that none of the words I want to say are worthy enough for such an influential and inspiring woman.
Only a few had the honor of knowing Lee personally. Several had the privilege to ask her questions and pick the brain that brought us one of the most significant American novels. Others, her readers, knew Lee through her invitation to Maycomb, Alabama, the confident voice of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, and the admiration of literary hero, Atticus.
In 1960, the world had the pleasure of meeting the small-town Alabama author. Her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, spoke volumes about humanity, justice, and prejudice through the innocent eyes of a child. The novel, dubbed a classic piece of American literature, “has been translated into more than 40 languages with more than a million copies sold each year,” a story that is taught in classrooms internationally.
As a writer, whether To Kill a Mockingbird falls into your lap during a high school English class or you stumble upon it on your own accord, Lee has so much to teach you. First and foremost, Lee teaches us what it’s like to be a writer. She exemplifies the success, the obstacles, the hardships, and the passion for the craft.
In a 1964 interview conducted by Roy Newquist, Lee divulged ample words of wisdom pertinent to aspiring writers and a testament to her legacy.
She demonstrated that it’s okay to write about what is familiar. There are several parallels that can be drawn between life in To Kill a Mockingbird and the life of Harper Lee. Hints of her lawyer father, Amasa Coleman Lee, live in Atticus Finch from occupation, to values, to the defense of African American men in trial. She pulled aspects of herself to shape strong-willed protagonist, Scout. Even the southern setting, Maycomb, Alabama parallels Lee’s hometown. Lee took what she knew, fused it with empowering words, a compelling, impactful story-line and unforgettable characters. She took a small-town story and paired it with realistic American issues to create this overnight classic.
Lee taught us the importance of empathy and characters in saying “Characters make their own plot. The dimensions of the characters determine the action of the novel.” To Kill a Mockingbird gifted the world with memorable characters that will live on in the midst of Lee’s legacy. You become a part of Maycomb’s community. You love, admire, and look up to Atticus as Scout does. You inhabit a sense of childish innocence and sense of adventure with Dill, Scout, and Jem. You want to protect the introvert, Arthur “Boo” Radley just as much as he wants to protect the kids. You feel what they feel, learn what they learn and keep in the back of your mind Atticus saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Lee taught us that if it is a passion, you need to pursue it. Writing is time consuming. It demands full and undivided attention. Lee was fortunate enough to be given the gift of financial support from a close friend, so that she could devote herself to writing full time. She says, “I like to write…when I get into work I don’t want to leave it.” And, with that devotion, with that passion, Lee cannot stress enough that writing is something one must do for themselves. The young writer cannot sit down to write with the intention of getting rich, receiving praise, and to create something for the world. Writing like that loses authenticity. She believes, “You must come to terms with yourself about your writing. You must not write “for” something; you must not write with definite hopes of reward…Writing is selfish and contradictory in its terms. First of all, you’re writing for an audience of one, you must please the one person you’re writing for….Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself.”
It is surreal to think that a woman that could teach the world so much could be taken from our lives. Harper Lee was always someone I believed to be immortal and, in some ways, I still believe she is, because Harper Lee loved to write and in doing so she placed a little bit of her soul into whatever she left behind. Harper Lee will live on in her novels, in her characters, in her tremendous contribution to society. She writes in To Kill a Mockingbird, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us.” Thank you for singing your heart out Harper Lee.
Written by Carlie Sisco
(Image by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)