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An Appreciation

Jesmyn Ward on the Legacy of Harper Lee

EW asked the National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones to weigh in on the complicated, powerful pull of To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee, who died last week at 89.

By Jesmyn Ward
2 min

READERS AROUND THE world will mourn Harper Lee's passing, and I'm sure the people of Monroeville, Alabama, will have myriad personal reasons to feel life without Lee looms bleakly. She was giving and kind, they might say. She had a wicked laugh and a sharp mind, another might suggest, while a third might chime: She saw and responded to the humanity of each and every one of us.

I never knew Harper Lee personally. Sometime during my 20s, I fantasized about taking off on a road trip to see her in Monroeville, which is around 170 miles away from my small Southern hometown. I'm sure many fans of her work have made this pilgrimage in the hope they might glimpse her, this woman who wrote such a seminal work of American literature. But I refrained, mostly because I understood and appreciated Lee's wishes: to live a life with privacy and anonymity. To live the life of her own choosing.

I never made that journey to Monroeville because, as a small-town denizen myself, I understood the town would encircle her, that they would misdirect fans, sending them off in the wrong direction, away from Ms. Lee. I understood they would protect her. Even though many small Southern towns can be frustrating, backward places where those who are different are made to feel their difference acutely, small Southern towns are also contradictions. They are often fiercely protective of their prodigal sons and daughters, of their freaks and outcasts, of those who took root and grew up in their piney stands, their raw fields. And I knew that even if one of their own had taken them to task as Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird, by reflecting their truest and sometimes ugly selves back to them, the town would still react like a wayward parent to a truth-telling child. I knew that they would still protect Lee.

I have deep respect for what she accomplished in To Kill a Mockingbird, too much to disregard her wishes. It would have been so easy for her to leave Alabama and write about other places and other people: to write a New York novel or a California novel or a novel set in the Midwest. It would have been easy for her to write a less painful, less personal book. It would have been easier for her to write a story that was less complicated, that didn't wrestle with the propensity for some white Southerners to be warm, polite, and hospitable in the afternoon before they gather to torture and lynch black people at night. It would probably have been easier for her to have such a novel published. Harper Lee would have had no problem finding a publisher happy to usher less contentious work into the world. But Lee chose to write a novel about the South she'd grown up in, the South that she probably loved and hated all at once.

Not only did she choose to write a novel about the small-town South, she also chose to write a story that explicitly wrestled with race, privilege, racialized violence, interracial sex, and coming of age in a region where all these things are painfully mired in the sticky morass of history. Instead of describing Southern white women as delicate, subtropical flowers, she likened them to "soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum." Instead of describing the black congregation of Calpurnia's church as a backward, sullen lot, she shaded them with humanity, positing that "Fans crackled, feet shuffled, tobacco-chewers were in agony." Instead of justifying the decision of a white lynch mob, empowering them in her description, as many of her time and place would have, she renders them weak and unintimidating as "sullen-looking, sleepy-eyed men who seemed unused to late hours." Those who populate Maycomb are foolish and wise, cunning and dim, complicated human beings, whether they are black or white, women or men, rich or poor.

It takes such clear-eyed courage and conviction to do what Lee did. To know, as an artist, that she'd said nearly everything she wanted in her first book. To write about the fictional version of her small town and people it with characters that are achingly human. Once, in reply to the question of whether she would write another book after To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee said, "I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again." And we are grateful that she chose to say it. We are grateful that she shared her story with us. We are grateful that she chose to do the hard work of reflecting back our best and ugliest selves to us. We are grateful that she did so with a kind hand, revelatory language, and an insightful eye. Harper Lee demanded that we share perspectives, and that we empathize with each other. She demanded that we be better human beings to each other, and we are forever grateful for the lesson.