THE BLOG
02/23/2016 05:36 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2017

Good-bye, Harper Lee

The death of Harper Lee was very sad for those of us who grew up with and who love To Kill A Mockingbird. Set in the Deep South, off the main highway, in a time of terror for black people and of economic depression for all, To Kill A Mockingbird gave us one figure in Atticus Finch who was upright, fair, and decent. A man who taught through his actions, Atticus passed his ethics to his son Jem and his daughter Jean Louise, known as Scout. She is the "scout into the wilderness," as one critic said, of her own town, which becomes unfamiliar and scary when seen in the light of the racism and classism that upholds its polite surface.

I wrote about Atticus' ethic in "Atticus Finch and the Mad Dog" (Southern Quarterly 1996). Atticus asking Scout to "stand in another person's shoes" is the demand to see as the other. His tough question, "Do you really think so?" asks Scout and the town, including a lynch mob, to question the common knowledge of a racist society. And his stoic courage, that you do what you have to do, particularly if you think you cannot win, is a lesson in standing up for justice. He calls Scout to exercise a compassionate and critical imagination, and, she does it, beautifully, at the end of the novel, as she stands in Boo Radley's shoes, looking at her life and world from the vantage point of his porch.

Lee's most recent but older novel, Go Set a Watchman, deconstructs Atticus and the beauty that marks Mockingbird. For me, it was hard to see our hero going to white citizens' council meetings and spouting racist rhetoric. Those elements were in others in Mockingbird: Mrs. DuBose gives Jem a white camellia when she dies, and we recognize the image of the KKK, and Tom Robinson dies because he, compassionately, stands in the shoes of Mae Ella Ewell, a forbidden act given his blackness. But Atticus stands above all that, so we shiver as Watchman reveals Atticus as a man of his time.

Two things, however, are consistent from one novel to the next. First is Atticus' faith that, in the courtroom, truth can be spoken and what is right can triumph. The trial is the civic structure that makes us stand in the shoes of another and that asks, "Do you really think so?" A trial interrogates, through reason and in critical debate, our worst inclinations. We know this is not always the case, but, as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer writes, "We Americans treasure the customs and institutions that have helped us to find the better way." One critical detail, just a footnote, in Watchman is that Atticus wins the rape trial.

The second consistency is how Scout has learned Atticus' ethic. She's Jean Louise now, not Scout, but she still quests. She is disenchanted with home and with her father, and she has had to leave them, becoming "other" herself, because she believes what Atticus has taught her, even if he cannot.

Through Watchman, Harper Lee makes a concluding remark at her parting: she calls us to grow up. To Kill A Mockingbird struck a beautiful chord in an America that was struggling with race, justice, and identity. Go Set a Watchman's dissonance is equally timely. Jean Louise represents folks my age who internalized Atticus'--and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s and Congressman John Lewis and the Freedom Riders', and so many others'--ethics and thought we had all the tools we needed to build an America that is fair and just for all. But Go Set a Watchman asks us "Do you really think so?" reminding us that we must go on imagining justice and that the struggle never ends because there are dark places, even in a good man's heart.