R.I.P. Harper Lee

Harper Lee, 1962
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Where do I even begin? If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time (or if you happen to know me), you probably know already that To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite novel and that its author Harper Lee is one of my favorite writers. Lee has had a bigger influence on me than perhaps any other author I’ve ever read, so I take her death very personally. I know this post will just be one of hundreds in the coming weeks eulogizing Lee, but right now, while I’m thinking about her and how much her work means to me, I’d like to finally write that Harper Lee tribute that’s been sitting in the back of my mind for so long.

I might never have read To Kill a Mockingbird in the first place if it hadn’t been assigned to me in my eleventh grade English class. Going into it, I had no idea what to expect, but it didn’t take long for me to find out that I had a treasure on my hands. Maybe it was because Mockingbird is so much better than 95% of the books that I had read previously, or maybe I was just at an age where I could better appreciate a good book, but however it happened, Mockingbird is what finally convinced me there’s something to this literature business after all. Reading it, I suddenly got all of the things I had been taught before about theme, characterization, symbolism, and how they all tie together to make a great work of art. I started noticing traces of this novel in the way I thought about the world, about other people, and even about myself. In other words, this book proved to me what the written word is capable of, showing me the great power that is held by the person who tells a story, and tells it well. While researching the book’s history for some school assignments, I got a sense of just how much of an impact this book had on other people too. I thought, This is incredible. The things a single good book can do! To Kill a Mockingbird marks the beginning of my love affair with literature, and for granting me that introduction, I will always be grateful to Miss Lee.

I’m also grateful for the characters Lee created. Jem, Scout, and Dill seem sort of like family now, and as for Atticus, I’ll probably go to my grave with lines like this and this still ringing in my mind’s ear. Messy “sequels” aside, I still admire Atticus and try to conduct myself in such a way that, if I were Scout, he would never have to give me that look that Gregory Peck gives to Mary Badham after she draws attention to Walter Cunningham Jr.’s unusual choice of condiments. I suppose it sounds silly to be so attached to fictional people, but these people have had an effect on me, and I think that effect has been for the better.

In a way, I’m almost relieved too to hear that Lee is gone: last I heard about her, she was frail and suffering from dementia, hearing loss, and near-total blindness. I’m glad she’s not hurting anymore, but just the same, it’s sad to see another good soul go.

But of course, this isn’t the end entirely. Another of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, used to say that he wanted to “Live forever,” and that writing was his way of beating death. I like to think that, through her writing and the numberless people it has enlightened and inspired, Harper Lee will live forever too.

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