Harper Lee wrote one book and became a national treasure. “To Kill A Mockingbird” has been on just about every English teacher’s “must read” list for decades. Fans loved Lee’s rich characters and embraced the story in print and on film.
Published in 1960, by 2015 HarperCollins reports having sold more than 40 million copies of the book about a girl named Scout growing up in the South during the Depression. When a black man is wrongly accused of rape, Scout’s father, Atticus Finch defends him while facing withering public and private threats.
Coming during the very beginning of the great civil rights movement in the United States, the book took off like a rocket, winning the Pulitzer Prize and being made into a movie in 1962. Gregory Peck won the best actor Oscar for the role of Atticus, a character fast on his way to becoming American legend.
Then, in 2015, Harper stunned readers and the publishing industry by allowing HarperCollins to publish “Go Set a Watchman,” a sequel of sorts. The book was written before Mockingbird, but set about 20 years later. While opinions about the quality of the book varied, a certain narrative did emerge: Atticus in this book bore little resemblance to the fiery defender of civil rights from Mockingbird. Instead of defending an unjustly accused man, Finch was a member of a mob protesting desegregation. Fans felt betrayed, recoiling against this new information.
For her part, Lee never said much about all the tumult “Watchman” caused. And, now, she can’t. Lee recently died at the age of 89, leaving behind a somewhat tarnished legacy and a legion of fans unsure how to feel about their favorite character. Which legacy best describes the author?
Lee’s publisher HarperCollins tried to take the lead in that narrative, releasing this statement: “The world knows Harper Lee was a brilliant writer but what many don’t know is that she was an extraordinary woman of great joyfulness, humility, and kindness. She lived her life the way she wanted to – in private – surrounded by books and the people who loved her.”
As an initial PR salvo, it’s a good one. It doesn’t mention either book, opting instead to humanize Lee. Often, when fans see their idols as “people too” they are apt to more easily forgive any perceived flaws. In this case, seeing Lee as a person allows fans to revel in their experience and memories of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and distance themselves from the successor.