“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird
Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee’s novels are about race, obviously, but they are also about coming of age, the realizations of a young girl, or a growing woman, and how we find hope (if we do) in the face of a society either ignorant or a victim of its own history. It’s easy to read the works as good guys and bad guys, victims and predators–but this is too simple an understanding of Lee’s South and of people.
Instead, as we encounter these characters, perhaps it is better to reason to what degree they are capable of their own choices, responsible for their own fates. Is the world too cruel for mockingbirds? Must all rabid dogs be put down?
No matter which novel you read, Lee explores similar themes through similar characters: the epiphanies are simply ones of differing sophistication, and the resolutions ones of temperament and satisfaction.
Some Themes to Question/Challenge:
- The role of blacks in the novel is to develop the character of the whites.
- If racism is learned, it can be unlearned.
- Fairness is innate, so adults have learned to be unjust.
- One should always be morally consistent
- Honesty is not always the best policy.
- We must learn to lose our fear of the unknown.
- Being feminine is a trap.
- Individuals cannot overcome being born into bad families.
- Sometimes it’s necessary to think of people as groups rather than as individuals.
- Justice is in conflict with compassion.
- Compassion can be dangerous.
Themes in color will be ones we focus on for class discussion this year.
Born in 1926, Harper Lee was the youngest of four children and grew up in a small town in Alabama. Her father was a lawyer and her mother had a mental disorder that kept her largely house-bound.
Lee was not a feminine young girl, and through her college years rarely used make-up or wore dresses, dated, etc. She was tougher than her childhood friend, the later-famous writer Truman Capote, who was quite sensitive and often wore fancy clothes–in fact, Lee became his defender. (Do these characters sound familiar?)
In 1960 she published To Kill a Mockingbird which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The film version of the novel won three Academy awards. In the 1970s, Lee retreated from public life and was famous for her reclusiveness. She gave much of her wealth to various charities.
Unfortunately, her later years found various people attempting to take advantage or her age. Her lawyers filed lawsuits when people tried to take the copyright to TKAM and attempted to sell merchandise about the book without her permission.
During these trials, however, Lee’s lawyers discovered a copy of her first book called Go Set a Watchman, thought to have been lost. The novel was originally rejected by publishers in 1957 (her editors said to rewrite it with Scout as a child). There has been some controversy over whether the decision to finally publish the book (which Lee had previously resisted) was her own. The novel is largely about Scout as a 26-year-old woman who returns to Maycomb to discover that her father Atticus has different beliefs than what she had imagined.