Rest in Peace Miss Lee
With today’s announcement of Harper Lee’s death, I remember the impact of reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time when I was in high school. I was a sophomore when the book was published. After the feature film was released in 1962, it became difficult to separate Atticus Finch as I visualized him in the novel and Gregory Peck’s portrayal on the screen.
The novel was set in the 1930s, a time seemingly faraway now, but not so far away that great writing and film making can’t quickly transport us back into that era. My reaction to the book in 1960 was that the racial divide in many towns hadn’t gotten much better in three decades. Things are better now than they were in 1930 and 1960, but there is more work to do.
When my friends and I–and a fair number of literature teachers–talked about To Kill a Mockingbird, one shared feeling amongst us was that the publication of the novel was evidence that things would keep getting better, that there was reason for hope. Harper Lee gave us both a great story and the rationale for a positive attitude.
Of course we viewed it as children of the 1960s when, in spite of the Vietnam war, hope seemed to be coming up everywhere. Racism, needless wars and the military-industrial complex weren’t infinite. We were more naive than we knew. Nonetheless, feeling positive rather than hardened and cynical seemed worthwhile because it made change possible.
I don’t know if people reading the novel for the first time today see it as a relic of a world that’s dead and gone or if they see it as a reminder that change comes a lot slower than it should and requires constant effort. Now that Miss Lee is gone, the world seems a little colder. She left us Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem, Boo, Tom Robinson and hope.