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Miss Nelle and her Words that Touched the World

The author, beloved the world over for her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird was laid to rest in a private service on Saturday in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Cerith Mathias examines the response in Monroeville to the sad news and the legacy of an author whose words traveled far beyond the Alabama state line.

mockingbirdHarper Lee’s tale of a small Southern town dealing with the complexities of racial and class inequalities in Depression-era America has shaped generations of readers worldwide. Over half a century since its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird continues to inspire; its characters — Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch — are among literature’s most cherished, with the book being cited in countless newspaper lists of the greatest and most popular novels of all time.

As news of the author’s passing broke on Friday, attention focussed on Monroeville, Miss Lee’s hometown and now final resting place.

“It is with great sadness that we offer the information that Harper Lee, 89, author of the American classic novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and the more recent follow-up, Go Set a Watchman, has passed away” read the website of the town’s independent bookstore Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe.

Almost exactly seven months previously, the world’s media and devoted Lee fans, myself included, had gathered eagerly in Monroeville, congregating on Ol’ Curiosities’ lawn for the midnight launch party of her second novel Go Set a Watchman, published after a much pored over literary silence of 55 years.

Friday’s news, however, cast a far more somber mood over the bookstore.

“Everyone is shocked and saddened by the news of her passing,” says Spencer Madrie, the store’s owner.
“It was just really a sad thing to hear. She impacted on so many, and she will be greatly missed. Several people have visited, called and emailed to talk about Miss Lee.”

Keen to honor their native daughter, known locally as Miss Nelle, and to pay tribute to an author, Madrie says touched “millions of lives,” the store is planning a candlelight memorial service over the coming days.

gosetawatchman“Ms. Lee was and always will be a literary icon,” Madrie says, “not only to Monroeville, but to the whole state of Alabama. She put Monroeville on the map with Mockingbird, one of the most prized pieces of classic literature ever written.”

Lee will be remembered far beyond Alabama for To Kill a Mockingbird, yet the rather unexpected and controversial arrival of her second novel in July of last year remains fresh in people’s minds. Concern was voiced that the author, left almost completely blind and deaf from a stroke in 2007, had not consented to Watchman’s publication.

Notoriously publicity-averse, Lee had previously communicated via her sister Miss Alice (who passed in 2014, aged 103) that she had said all she had to say in the pages of Mockingbird, refusing any journalistic request with her famed response of “Hell, NO!”

A real-life Boo Radley then, hiding in the shadows of her much-guarded privacy.

When news came of Watchman’s release, such was the strength of concern for Lee’s welfare in certain quarters, an investigation into elder abuse was carried out by the state of Alabama. Despite its conclusion to the contrary, rumours of dark dealings in relation to Watchman’s release and the handling of Lee’s estate persist to this day.

Go Set a Watchman itself also received mixed reviews, with particular shock over an apparent change in Lee’s most famous creation, lawyer- hero Atticus Finch.

Although written prior to Mockingbird, the novel was Lee’s first draft of the story of the small town of Maycomb, distinctly Southern its appearance, but universal its traits, attitudes and characters. Despite it being the top-selling book in the U.S. in 2015, it is doubtful that what was essentially Mockingbird’s parent will endure in the same way as the 1960 classic.

“She captured a world set in a small town in Alabama, but the characteristics apply around the world, because she has captured the good and bad of small towns, of human nature, of families, of classes,” says Nancy Anderson, a distinguished outreach fellow at Montgomery’s Auburn University, who has taught Mockingbird for more than 40 years.

“Many have suffered a personal loss in the past two days, but readers around the world continue to have her literary legacy.”

Indeed, tributes have been paid to Harper Lee in the media across the globe, with the online book of condolences at Johnson Funeral Home in her hometown containing messages from far and wide, thanking Lee for her books. Recognition of both the reach and the enduring power of her words.

leeplotOn Saturday, a few dozen close friends and family attended Nelle Harper Lee’s funeral at the First United Methodist Church in Monroeville for a small, private ceremony that lasted around an hour. Her coffin adorned with white and red roses, Lee was laid to rest next to her father, Amasa Coleman Lee — who was the inspiration for Atticus Finch— her Mother Frances and her sister Miss Alice in the town’s Pineville Cemetery.

“It was a simple, dignified service, by invitation only,” says Anderson, who was in attendance.

The eulogy was delivered by Wayne Flint, a local historian and close friend of Miss Lee. Titled “Atticus Inside Ourselves,” it was originally a speech Flint had given in 2006 when Harper Lee received the Birmingham Pledge Foundation Award for Racial Justice.

“She immediately wrote him that she wanted that speech read at her memorial service in an effort to keep the focus on her art, not her life,” Anderson says.

That focus is certainly being maintained in her hometown, whose store windows and buildings are peppered with reminders of Lee’s literary legacy. Painted-on mockingbirds are to be found all over, statues of her characters stand in the town’s postage stamp-sized square, and a mural depicting Scout, Jem and Dill at play in Maycomb’s dusty summer streets completely covers the side of Johnson Jewelers.

Mockingbird-Mural,-Monroeville

Opposite stands the courthouse, a redbrick building capped with a domed, white roof. Once the place where her father practiced law, as a girl, Lee — like Scout and Jem —would spend her days peering through the bannisters of the overhead gallery, watching him at work in the courtroom below. The building is now a museum dedicated to the area’s history and the town’s famous scribes: Lee and her childhood neighbor Truman Capote. It is impossible, however, not to regard the focal point of downtown Monroeville as anything other than the domain of Atticus Finch.

monroecourthouseHaving suffered a little reputational damage last summer in the pages of Go Set a Watchman, with its nuanced and arguably far more realistic depiction of the realities of a small Southern town living under the rule of Jim Crow, from the outpouring of fondness for the character since Lee’s passing, it’s clear that Mr. Finch, conjured up by many in the form of Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation of “Mockingbird,” is firmly back on his pedestal.

“A new book brought me to her hometown last summer, and her inspiration continues to bless me,” says Eric Richardson, a Gregory Peck tribute actor from Baltimore, who traveled to Monroeville in July last year to celebrate the launch of Go Set a Watchman. He delighted crowds as Atticus Finch, dressed in a pressed cream linen suit and panama hat, briefcase in hand.

“Although I never actually met her, I felt like I’ve known her for years,” he says. “Mockingbird entered my world in the mid-’90s, giving me my first hint of what Atticus would mean in my life. Bringing him to life in that first stage production inspired me to become a better father. Our lives have been truly blessed by your inspiration … Thank you, Miss Nelle.”

Inspiration is a word continually associated with Lee’s words; the character of Atticus is often said to be at the root of many a decision to go into law, and Scout’s sass and insatiable curiosity has made her the idol of young readers — girls and boys (and a few of us older ones, too).

To Kill a Mockingbird is also inextricably linked with Civil Rights Movement of 1960s America; the messages of human empathy and tolerance contained within its pages have for decades been considered part of the international dialogue around race and justice. Atticus’s call for understanding, his assertion that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” became far more than advice to his young daughter. It became the moral code of a generation touched by Lee’s sentiment.

“Her brilliant portrayal of one man’s stand against racial injustice in the Deep South helped inspired me, and many others, to become a civil rights lawyer … and her depiction of a great evil in America moved millions of others to fight for justice at a crucial time in our nation’s history,” Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote online on Saturday.

Indeed, the profoundness of Lee’s message remains as crucial as ever, a fact underlined by the significance of the timing of Go Set a Watchman last summer amidst heated discussion about police violence, Ferguson and the shootings of worshippers in Charleston’s oldest black church. The question was posed: Just how much had America moved on?

The day Gregory Peck’s Atticus was shown in movie theaters in the South also marked the beginning of Rev. Martin Luther King’s Children’s Crusade. Over half a century later, the day Watchman’s first chapter was serialized in The Wall Street Journal, the Confederate Flag was removed from South Carolina’s State Capitol building in Columbia. It seemed Boo Radley had slipped from the shadows one final time to make the world sit up and pay attention.

For author Margaret Eby, who also hails from Alabama, Harper Lee’s legacy is clear.

“I’m deeply saddened, and my heart goes out to her friends and family. She put Alabama on the literary map in an indelible way,” says Eby, whose book South Toward Home includes a chapter on Lee and her contribution to Southern letters.

“She was an incredible writer, a generous friend to those who knew her, and an inspiration to whole generations of readers and writers, myself included.”

All photos by Deep South, except Mockingbird mural by Cerith Mathias. 

See more photos from Monroeville and the launch of Go Set a Watchman here

Cerith Mathias is a political television producer for the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. “I have held a keen interest in the South since childhood, which I believe stems from reading authors such as Harper Lee and Mark Twain,” she says. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South. Read her blog here

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