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Saying Goodbye To Harper Lee: A Very Public Send-Off For A Private Woman

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Jamie Martin
/
AP Images
Author Harper Lee pictured here in 2007 after hearing a performance by Birmingham public school students.

By now, you have probably heard that Pulitzer Prize winning author Harper Lee died this past Friday at the age of 89. Her most famous book, "To Kill A Mockingbird," is one of the most celebrated novels of the 20th century.  Her only other published work, "Go Set a Watchman," came out this past July. 

To celebrate her life and legacy, Tony Norman, book editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a piece titled, "She Wrote the Book We All Read in High School."  He joined Paul Guggenheimer on Essential Pittsburgh to discuss her timeless writing. 

As a young reader first taking on "Mockingbird," Norman says he remembers wishing the narrative would have been more didactic.  Now an adult, however, he recognizes Lee’s subtly and appreciates her technique.

“It insinuates itself into the brains of the readers and readers walk away from that saying ‘You know what, she has a point’, whereas if she would have been more in your face, it would have turned off more people than it would have converted,” Norman says.

"To Kill A Mockingbird" addresses issues of justice and race in the 1930s in which Norman says Lee took an “unrelenting look archetypes of the south.”  This subtle use of stereotypes is what Norman believes makes the novel so successful. 

Rather than feel uncomfortable with the way blacks were treated, Norman says white people were able to see themselves as who they want to be in the story in characters like Scout and Atticus Finch, who were inherently good.  These depictions allowed for what Norman says is an element of “white American innocence.”

In the case of her newer novel, "Go Set a Watchman," Lee portrays a much more realistic encounter with race.  "Watchman" was released in 2015 as a sequel to her original novel, but was actually written before "Mockingbird."

“It’s a much different experience than what Americans are used to when it comes to this beloved book and these beloved characters,” Norman says.

Despite the controversy surrounding the publication of "Watchman," Norman believes Lee did consent to the release, as she may have felt an authorial pride toward the novel.  He also notes that the book likely would have been released following her death anyway.

“For Harper Lee, it was probably just a measure of vindication,” Norman says, “She probably felt ‘Why don’t I stick around long enough to see what the reaction to this book is because I would get a kick out of that.”

"To Kill a Mockingbird" remains one of the most beloved and influential novels in modern literature, and has been made into both a movie and stage play.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

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