Harper Lee’s incomparable “To Kill a Mockingbird” changed lives, that’s all. More than 50 years ago, the young woman from Monroeville, Alabama, went to New York City to be a writer. She took with her a gift for language, especially the language of the South.
The book was to be one of only two she would write, the second being “Go Set a Watchman,” which contained the same characters as her first novel and was released in recent years to mixed criticism and some skeptical views that the work was mostly a first, and much weaker, draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Race was at the center of Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work about a black man accused of raping a white woman in a highly charged Southern town. The lawyer Atticus Finch (based on Lee’s father) was his lonely defender, but a man who was respected by neighbors as an upright, honest man. The book and the movie that followed it were strong commentaries on racial tension and prejudice. And that did indeed change lives by opening the minds of a generation, and then subsequent generations, to the horrible prejudice that gripped individuals, families and communities.
Few authors have the impact Lee had. And few who succeeded so spectacularly seemed to reject the fame that came with it. Lee lived in New York, but in her later years returned to Monroeville. She was called a recluse by some, but that wasn’t exactly right. In her hometown, she visited schools, and she engaged with friends, but she also shunned thousands of requests for interviews. It didn’t matter. Her book still is taught in schools around the world. It has sold 10 million copies.