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Harper Lee: 1926-2016

Losing Harper Lee a couple months shy of her 90th birthday feels akin to losing her literary alter ego, Scout Finch, the tomboy narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird. Though Lee never wrote another novel, her debut solidified her place in literary history, winning the Pulitzer Prize and several generations' worth of praise. It's unclear how Lee felt about her own fame, though her choice to keep a low profile would suggest that she wasn't comfortable with it. In a 1964 interview, she admitted, "I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. [...] I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

Maycomb, the small town where Mockingbird takes place, has lived in readers' imaginations since 1960, when To Kill A Mockingbird was first published. The town is so much more than a community in Alabama or a setting in a novel. Anyone fortunate enough to have grown up reading To Kill a Mockingbird can attest to how their memories of childhood are intertwined with those of Scout. It is through her eyes that we observe a darker side of American history that contrasts sharply with the nostalgic warmth of Lee's sublime prose.

For many white children who grew up in predominantly white communities, this book was their first exposure to how racism is woven into the fabric of our culture. Scout's father, Atticus Finch, was hailed as a civil rights icon, since the book's central plot thread concerns the lawyer's efforts to defend an African-American man wrongly accused of rape. Along with Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Mockingbird was the greatest reading experience I had in grade school, and it left an indelible impact on me, as did Robert Mulligan's Oscar-winning 1962 film adaptation. The final shot of Atticus and Scout embracing as the camera pulls back through their window, accompanied by Elmer Bernstein's hauntingly bittersweet score, moves me to tears every time I see it.

One person who wasn't a fan of either the book or the film was Roger Ebert. In his two-and-a-half star review of Mulligan's classic, he dubbed it a time capsule that "expresses the liberal pieties of a more innocent time." He's right, of course, yet I find it hard to criticize a work of art for being a product of its time. There's as much to learn from Lee's perspective on the material as there is from the material itself. 

The impact of "Mockingbird" the movie on cinema is as far reaching as influence of the book. Echoes of Lee can be found in Kevin Costner's Atticus-like hero in Oliver Stone's "JFK" and Samuel L. Jackson's accused murderer on trial in Joel Schumacher's "A Time to Kill"—a Tom Robinson character, opposite Matthew McConaughey's young Atticus Finch—to the variations on Scout's mysterious neighbor Boo Radley seen in Billy Bob Thornton's "Slide Blade," Chris Columbus's "Home Alone" and Sam Raimi's "The Gift." 

I wonder what Roger would've thought about Go Set a Watchman, the early draft that led to Mockingbird. It was published last year under controversial circumstances, and was foolishly marketed as a deliberate prequel to the classic. Yes, it charts Scout's return to Maycomb as an adult, yet since Lee wrote it first, there is no reason to believe that these versions of the characters are identical to those that populate Mockingbird. Though Watchman lacks the finesse of its predecessor, its portrayal of Scout's disillusionment—as she confronts the ugliness and discrimination that eluded her childhood gaze—provides a more provocative view of Southern life. It's the sort of novel a director like Todd Haynes was born to adapt. So many lines resonate today, such as this nugget: "Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends."

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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