Harper Lee turns 80

Today is the birthday of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Born in 1926, she turns 80 today. David Robinson notes Lee’s birthday in the Scotsman: “The one and only.” I wrote about To Kill a Mockingbird here a while back and thought I might take the occasion to rework my comments this morning.

Abraham Lincoln is certainly the greatest lawyer America has ever produced, but his career hasn’t resonated much in the legal profession. A few years back John and I touched on the theme of Lincoln’s legal career in “A genius for friendship.”

For a time Clarence Darrow seemed to serve as an inspirational figure for attorneys. The historical novelist Irving Stone wrote a popular biography of Darrow, and Inherit the Wind immortalized a version of Darrow as a slayer of Bible Belt ignorance in a highly stylized version of the Scopes trial story. Edward Larson supplied the historical corrective in Summer for the Gods.

In the past 40 years, however, perhaps no one figure has been more responsible for inspiring students to pursue a career in law than Atticus Finch. The hero of To Kill a Mockingbird is the Platonic Idea of an American attorney: brave, righteous, fair, devoted to his client regardless of the unpopularity of his cause. (As a matter of trial technique, Finch’s closing argument at the trial of Tom Robinson leaves something to be desired; for trial technique, as John and I suggest in the Lincoln piece, Lincoln is the better model.) Commentators on To Kill a Mockingbird observe that Harper Lee based the figure of Atticus Finch on her father, Amassa Coleman Lee, and the trial that lies at the center of the novel on the case of the Scottsboro boys.

To Kill a Mockingbird has enjoyed a popular success of a rare kind, becoming one of the best-selling novels of all time. Like other such popular novels — think of Ben-Hur, for example — it easily lent itself to becoming a popular movie. (In the case of Ben-Hur, make that two popular movies.) Take nothing away from Horton Foote’s fine script or Gregory Peck’s moving performance; novels that touch a deep popular chord seem without exception to have their success translated into other forms.

This past January Harper Lee emerged for an essay contest awards ceremony in Tuscaloosa, Alabama that was covered in a good New York Times article by Gina Bellafonte (now behind the Times’s subscription wall). The Times article prompted Professor Wilfred McClay’s post at the First Things On the Square site. McClay writes acutely about the novel:

[T]he book’s influence is probably not anywhere near being over. At least, one can hope not. To revisit it again is to reach back and experience the dawning of a sense of interracial good will and hopefulness and possibility that, at times, seems very remote today, even with all that we have achieved as a society in the intervening years. Indeed, read alongside Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, or Shelby Steele’s trenchant observations about the poisonous effects of “white guilt,” the moral world of Mockingbird may seem hopelessly innocent and idealistic, in just the way that Harper Lee’s admirable reticence may seem impossibly ascetic and futile in a publicity-saturated time. Mockingbird could not envision the immense harm that has been wrought in the years since by the cynical exploitation of race as an issue—not least, the damage done to precisely the willingness of the heart that Mockingbird helped bring about. There is a gauzy and middlebrow sentimentality in the book, and a naïveté about human nature, luxuries we perhaps feel we can no longer afford. We are all too aware of how the righteous hatred of hatred can degenerate into an even more poisonous and manipulable form of hate, precisely because it is insulated from self-examination by its own sense of righteousness. Yet the same criticisms of sentimentality and naivete could be made of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book that turns out, a century and a half after it was written, to have been better and more penetrating and more enduring than anyone credited at the time, or even fifty years ago. I suspect that To Kill a Mockingbird will still be read with profit and respect a century and half from now; I’m rather less sanguine about the long-range prospects for the other literary stars of the current canon, which already show signs that they will not age gracefully.

Thanks to our friend Jonathan Last and Galley Slaves for directing us earlier this year to the Times article and McClay’s commentary.

UPDATE: My colleage Peter Swanson of Swanblog brings the cases of the Scottsboro boys and Tom Robinson to bear on current events in Durham: “Scottsboro, Maycomb and Durham.”


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