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Remembering the life and legacy of Harper Lee

February 19, 2016 at 7:29 PM EDT
Renowned author Harper Lee, whose debut novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” has become enshrined within the American literary canon, died early Friday morning at age 89. Jeffrey Brown sits down with bestselling novelist Allan Gurganus to discuss Lee’s works and enduring legacy.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the loss of a literary legend reclusive in life, but renowned for crafting one of the great American novels.

And to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Harper Lee was a little known writer living in New York when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960. The book would win the Pulitzer Prize a year later, sell more than 30 million copies in 40 languages, and be read and loved by generations.

Its fame grew with the 1962 film version starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, father of the young narrator, Scout, and a lawyer in a segregated Alabama town who defends a black man against a rape charge.

In a 1964 radio interview, Lee said this about “Mockingbird”‘s enormous success:

HARPER LEE, Novelist: My reaction to it wasn’t one of surprise. It was one of sheer numbness. It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold.

(LAUGHTER)

HARPER LEE: I never expected that the book would sell in the first place.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in the decades that followed, Lee did little or no talking. It was news when she went to the White House in 2007 to accept a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Instead, she lived quietly most of her life in the town of Monroeville, Alabama. And while readers waited, no other books came, until the surprise this past summer of “Go Set a Watchman,” a book described as written before “Mockingbird,” but only discovered and published 55 years later.

It drew more readers, mixed reviews, and many questions about the circumstances of its writing and publication.

Harper Lee died in her sleep last night. She was 89 years old.

And joining us now is novelist and short story writer Allan Gurganus. His books include “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” “Plays Well With Others,” and most recently “Local Souls.”

Allan, welcome to you.

What explains the popularity in the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird”?

ALLAN GURGANUS, Novelist: I think it’s a fable about the extraordinarily difficult subject of race that presents itself with charm and a kind of innocence that makes the investigation acceptable and beguiling.

I think the name Scout of the child is appropriate. She’s our representative in this strange moral morass that she finds herself in. And I think she’s spoken to a lot of people over the years.

JEFFREY BROWN: And set in its particular time, when you think of both the historical qualities and for you, as a writer, its writing qualities.

ALLAN GURGANUS: It’s a book with a lot of precision, a lot of poetic passages about small-town life that rings completely true, as somebody who grew up in a small town.

But I think, ethically, the questions are strenuous and difficult and interesting. And that combination of giving us candy and salt at the same time has made the book so popular. It’s also short, which is great for junior high school readers.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLAN GURGANUS: But it manages to pull heartstrings and ask big, big questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not to be underemphasized, the length of a book sometimes, right?

What about Harper Lee the author?

ALLAN GURGANUS: No, and especially for young people.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about Harper Lee the author and the sort of — the mythology of the — that came to surround her as writing this one book, all but disappearing, people waiting endlessly for another book?

ALLAN GURGANUS: I think she was a very shy, charming person used to living in a very small town, where everybody knew her, and the attention that she got when this novel came out and became a bestseller for 88 weeks was overwhelming.

She was also protecting her private life, her sexual life, which is a decision that I respect. And she just made a decision not to go public. I think the pressure of following a book that wins the Pulitzer Prize can’t be overestimated.

And she was — I think had set out to write a book that mythologized her father, her actual lawyer father, in a way that met her own standards. He still spoke to her after she had written the book. And she was pleased with what she had done. And I think her mission was in some ways complete.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then, of course, there’s the “Go Set a Watchman,” a very strange episode, many questions that came about, whether it was an early draft of “Mockingbird,” whether she had agreed or should have agreed to its publication.

What, in the end, do you think that we should take from that?

ALLAN GURGANUS: I think every writer has two or three novels hidden away in drawers and closets that would ruin their literary reputation.

And for somebody to come in late in your game and public those with only half of your permission may be a smart move in terms of moneymaking, but it was a devastating blow to her reputation.

A lot of boys had been named Atticus, and people actually went to court to have their sons named changed when the Atticus in the second book turned out to be a conventional racist like the other people on the town council. So I think it was a mistake for her reputation.

But the singular book that she will be remembered for is the “Mockingbird.”

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. I was going to say, so, briefly, the legacy really, you just think, should be defined by one this book, but what a book it was.

ALLAN GURGANUS: What a book it was.

And to think that it came out in 1960, just before the huge riots and the German shepherds and the fire hoses in the South, I think it taught white America how to think about race. And we needed an innocent child to lead us into that difficult and complex subject.

And it made the prophecy of what was coming palatable and easy to understand and digest. So, it served an extraordinary function, and it’s to be remembered and treasured, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: Allan Gurganus on the life and work of Harper Lee, thank you so much.

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