WASHINGTON – At a time when politics has veered toward division and exclusion, it is somehow fitting that Harper Lee, the apostle of empathy, made her exit.
After the success of her first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Lee chose to live a quiet life in a quiet South Alabama town, involved in the local Methodist Church, doing laundry at the XL Laundromat, occasionally going to Atlantic City to play the slots. But in all the years since the book’s publication in 1960, people (like me) have found reading it a momentous event in their lives. From her tranquil hometown, Lee must have known that her novel – required in English class, found tattered in a used bookstore, reclaimed from a box in the basement – was causing lightning, and earthquakes, and pealing church bells.
Abraham Lincoln called Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the “little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” While not responsible for starting it, Lee was the little woman who made the values of the civil rights movement – particularly a feeling for the god-awful unfairness of segregation – real for millions.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is occasionally mischaracterized as children’s literature. It is an adult story – dealing with pathetic loneliness, an accusation of rape, the strangely sexual content of bigotry, a complete failure of justice – told from the perspective of a child. And Lee gave us the reason for this device. When one child in the story, Dill, cries and retches after seeing injustice in the courtroom, Dolphus Raymond (the outcast father of mixed-race children) says: “Things haven’t caught up with that one’s instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being – not quite right, say, but he won’t cry, not when he gets a few years on him.” Lee wanted her readers to see injustice as if they were seeing it for the first time, before rationalizations and hardness form.
Lee was too good a novelist – possessing a keen eye for hypocrisy and cruelty – to have a rosy view of humanity. The Cunninghams are dirty and lice-ridden. The Ewells are bigoted, welfare-dependent and fully capable of child murder. You get the sense that Lee is not nearly as naive as Atticus Finch, who does, in one large case, see good where there is only evil.
But it is Lee’s point that human beings often improve on closer, more sympathetic inspection. Scout finds that the family cook, Calpurnia, is not really “tyrannical,” and that Raymond is not actually a drunkard, and that Aunt Alexandra has loyalty and steadiness beneath her “boarding school manners” and that Boo Radley is not a “malevolent phantom” but a guardian angel. The nasty old racist Mrs. Dubose – facing death without the crutch of morphine – is, to Atticus, the “bravest person I ever knew.” Real courage, he says, “is when you know you are licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”
All these cases are illustrations of the central, familiar moral insight of the book. “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout,” Atticus advises his daughter, “you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 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.”
For Lee, this point demands more than observation. By actively treating people as individuals, they can respond with unexpected virtue. In the book, Walter Cunningham is part of a lynch mob. When Scout causes Cunningham to recall that he is a father, he walks away from violence. Men and women can be better than the mob, when they remember their hidden dignity, their secret honor. Lee defends the possibility of the awakened conscience.
Right now, the world of adults seems increasingly like Lee’s Maycomb, with a tiny religious minority stigmatized and targeted for exclusion, and another minority accused of being criminals and rapists, demonstrating the strangely sexual content of bigotry. And though we know it is not quite right, there are few who can manage tears.
Once again – maybe always – there is a great drama in what Lee called “the secret courts of men’s hearts.” Let us hope with Lee that people are better than the mob and capable of imagining the lives of strangers. And whatever the outcome, Atticus – more real than any living politician – urges us to see it through.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.