Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Harper Lee, 89, passed away Friday and was buried Saturday, having presented us with two major challenges during her lifetime.
In her 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Lee challenged readers to think about issues related to race, class and justice by following the story of fictional child Scout Finch, her brother and their father, as they and the fellow citizens of their small Alabama town grapple with the arrest and subsequent trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. The book led to an award-winning 1962 film and continues to be a staple of school reading lists to this day, where it serves as a window to the past and a reminder of work still to be done.
In 2015, 55 years after the publication of the literary classic, another book by Lee, “Go Set a Watchman,” hit the virtual and actual shelves of booksellers. We were challenged this time, too, not only by the book itself but by the circumstances surrounding its publication.
The novel, featuring many of the same characters who populate “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is set 20 years later and depicts Scout’s father, lawyer Atticus, as an aging racist rather than a crusader against racism. It reportedly had been rejected by a publisher in the mid-1950s; Lee appears to have reworked the story to produce her 1960 masterpiece.
Of “Go Set a Watchmen,” publisher HarperCollins quoted Lee in a press release issued just more than a year ago as saying: “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.” Carter, according to HarperCollins, found the original manuscript in 2014 “in a secure location,” affixed to an original typescript of the popular book, and the attorney recounted her experience for the Wall Street Journal. Earlier media reports such as this one in the New York Times, however, had disputed claims related to the discovery and publication of the manuscript; they also noted that Lee lived in an assisted living community, where her physical health and perhaps her cognitive abilities were declining.
The general public may never know the true circumstances behind the book’s publication and whether its wide distribution represented Lee’s true wishes. The novel, which made best-seller lists but is considered by most critics to be inferior to its predecessor, threatened to tarnish Lee’s legacy as a talented writer. Time will tell. The events surrounding the publication of the second novel, however, leave us to ponder what it means to grow old, what our responsibilities are to our elders and when it is appropriate to step beyond the desire to respect residents’ autonomy to preserve their dignity and protect their legacies.