On Friday I heard the sad news that literary legend and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee had died in her sleep at the age of 89. Like many others, my first experience of To Kill a Mockingbird was in a classroom as a teenager, but it was only when I reread it last summer that I really appreciated the novel’s genius. I raced through it within the space of a couple of days, staying up late reading in bed till my eyes hurt like a kid on summer vacation who has just got her hands on the latest Harry Potter book. Lee’s writing struck me as so profoundly insightful and beautiful that I regularly had to put down the book and wipe away a tear or two.
Perhaps my emotional response to the story was partly because I have recently lost my own beloved Atticus-like father, but the novel’s best-seller literary classic status and enduring appeal (it was first published in 1960) is a testament to the fact that millions share my experience. And, although it felt like an unedited first draft of a novel in many ways, Lee’s unexpected second novel, Go Set a Watchman (published last summer), also had some thought-provoking and powerful insights.
In celebration of the life of this great writer, here are just a few of the moments in Lee’s writing that can make us better people, if we let them.
01. Seeing The Good In People
One of the most striking moments in To Kill a Mockingbird is when Atticus explains to his children why he admires the elderly and ailing Mrs. Dubose, even though she is viciously unpleasant to him, and disagrees with him on some pretty fundamental issues. He tells them about her courageous determination to die free from morphine addiction, and explains the struggle she went through as she withdrew from the drug before her death. As he explains, even though “She had her own views about things, a lot different from mine, maybe,” he wanted his children to spend time with her so that they could learn “what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.”
Atticus saw the good in someone when it would have been all too easy to dismiss her as an unpleasant, good-for-nothing old woman. These days, we can all be too quick to think of someone we disagree with as being wholly bad and unworthy of our attention or friendship, so Atticus’ lesson is one that definitely could use some application in our lives.
02. Empathy Makes the World Go 'Round
Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird the importance of empathy is slowly revealed. Empathy is the key to understanding the way the world works. As Atticus tells Scout, “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.”
In the final chapter, Scout reflects on how the neighbor that she was so afraid of at first turned out to be, in fact, “real nice” once she got to know him a little. Her father’s response? “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” All too often we judge people without taking the time to really “see” them; if we could look at everyone with more empathy, the world would truly be a better place.
03. Love Doesn’t Discriminate
When Scout asks Atticus if it’s true that he’s a “n—r lover,” he calmly replies “I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody.” In an instant, he takes an ugly phrase designed to insult and cause discord and turns it into a beautiful badge of honor. In Go Set a Watchman he responds to Jean Louise’s raging with the simple phrase “I love you” instead of trying to reason her around to his point of view.
This lesson is perhaps more radical than it first appears: it tells us to love people first, before everything else. Contrary to the popular idea that love makes you blind, this tells us that if you love first, you’ll see more accurately, and act more justly. Love, and it won't hurt or enrage you when someone spits in your face. Love, and you’ll have the courage to do the right thing and stand guard all night by a vulnerable person’s prison cell. Love, and you’ll be able to trust that somehow even though you disagree with a loved one, your relationship isn’t doomed.
04. Everyone Has Flaws
The shocking revelation at the heart of Go Set a Watchman is that while Atticus is a good man, he isn’t always right. Jean Louise is deeply shaken when she has to face this truth, as is the reader. As Lee writes, “most potent moral force in her life was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, 'What would Atticus do?' passed through her unconscious.” It turns out that she had “confused [her] father with God,” that she “never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings.” As her uncle explains, though, “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience." It can be fatal to ignore someone else’s flaws and turn another person into your conscience and moral compass.
05. We’re All In Danger of Being a Bigot
In Go Set a Watchman the reader can get so caught up in the shock of discovering that Atticus has flaws just like every other human being that we can risk missing another important lesson of the book: anyone can be a bigot, and even if you’re “in the right,” you mustn’t fall into this trap. As Jean Louise’s uncle puts it to her, “What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.” Do we have the courage to listen, to empathize, to avoid lashing out, to see someone’s flaws and still to treat them with dignity?
Thank you Harper Lee for these insights; rest in peace, and may readers continue to discover and enjoy the wisdom of your writing for many years to come.