Readers’ views of Harper Lee are somewhat complex. For some, she is the author of the book that their English teacher forced them to read. For others, she was one of the most accomplished female American authors, with two books that tackled the issues of race and struggle during the Civil Rights movement. On Feb. 19—two months shy of reaching her 90th birthday—Lee passed away.
“I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, twice,” Reuven Glezer, a freshman majoring in journalism, confessed. “Initially I hated it because I was forced to read it and had to read it a specific way, but upon my own read I began to appreciate it [in] a greater context.”
Born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926, Lee knew first-hand what it was like—as a white woman—to live under the Jim Crow laws. She graduated from Monroe County High School in 1944, and went on to pursue an English major at Huntingdon College, later transferring to the University of Alabama. There, she tried to pursue a law degree, though she dropped out after returning from a semester abroad at Oxford University.
Lee’s childhood is clearly reflected in the life of the protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise Finch, more often referred to as Scout. Both novels are set in the fictional county of Maycomb, Alabama, which helped the author convey some of her impressions from childhood and adolescence. Furthermore, Lee’s father—just like Scout’s—was a lawyer.
Abraam Saroufim, a freshman majoring in finance, revealed a key element of To Kill a Mockingbird—its reflections on growing up.
“When I read the book, I was 15 years old, older than Scout or Jem, but I went through the same struggles as they did at the time. The [main] struggle [was] going from childhood to innocence to a more adult perspective of the world,” Saroufim said.
Because of its setting, one should not look at the novel as yet another coming-of-age story. Scout’s father pushes her to ponder on morality, whether it is through his request for Scout to stop fighting with her classmates or facing her neighbors’ reactions to Atticus defending an African American. And, thanks to her caretaker Calpurnia, she learns to treat African Americans like her white neighbors, even if she cannot help but notice the differences between them. Through her curious childish eyes, the reader gets a fresh perspective on the issues of the early-1940s southern United States.
“I think [To Kill a Mockingbird] gives a lot of insight into the racial discrimination that was [happening]. We know in theory what happened but a lot of white people don’t know the examples of what happened, and this was a great example of what [people] felt there and the racial prejudice,” Chaya Halberstam, a freshman intending to major in political science, said.
It is also important to understand Atticus Finch’s influence on the narrative. It is not without reason that Atticus is often labelled as the gatekeeper of morality. He defended a man who needed to be defended, whether in the courtroom or by his jail cell when a mob wanted to lynch him. He defends the case even though he knew it was lost from the start. He was honest with his children and questioned their beliefs in an effort to reaffirm them.
Go Set a Watchman was set over a decade following the events of To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout, now a grown-up woman living in New York City, is visiting her old father.
Reactions to the long-awaited sequel were mixed. Fans were excited to find out what happened to the Finches. Upon finishing the book, many were disappointed with Atticus’ actions for the majority of the novel. Others simply did not think that it matched the quality of its predecessor.
“I thought Mockingbird was really good but she shouldn’t have made a sequel because it ruined Atticus Finch for everyone, or for me at least,” Evan Lewis, a freshman majoring in political science, said. “The book changed a lot of opinions on things like race relations and the death penalty and gender barriers. She changed a lot of prejudices over time, which is significant because she was a woman writer.”
In Go Set a Watchman, it feels as if all of Atticus’ greatest traits simply evaporated. Somehow in those 20 years, the man turned from a moral example into a white supremacist who spoke out against African Americans.
Thus, for the most part, Go Set a Watchman is a story of rediscovery at a time when the whole world seems to be shifting. If the first novel was about Scout living in an idealized world with more justice and equality than it actually possessed, the second novel painted the picture of the same girl—now a woman—as a newborn kitten in a world where African Americans were finally so much closer to the rights they deserved.
Go Set a Watchman does not fail to highlight the underlying issues of society. Views of race were rapidly shifting as the Civil Rights Act became more of a reality. For some, it was a relief. Others were in shock. Despite growing up under discriminatory laws, Atticus taught his children the importance of equality. Until the end, Scout failed to realize one important fact that her uncle eventually pointed out to her—you cannot view other races as truly equal unless you acknowledge and respect the cultural and historical differences that set them apart.
This is why Lee is hailed as one of the greatest American authors—she managed to capture the shift in racial relationships that is still happening in the 21st century.
On Feb. 19, a great female author passed away. While her works may not have influenced some, those who never forgot her works can celebrate her life and accomplishments by re-reading those very same stories that left such a profound impact on the world.
Additional reporting by Yelena Dzhanova
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