Go Set a Legacy: The Fate of Harper Lee

The author, dead at 89, gave the world one of its most beloved books. And then another that made things complicated.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters
When their only daughter was born four years ago, Victoria and David Beckham named her Harper—a tribute, the girl’s mother would later explain, to her favorite author, Harper Lee. This would prove be one of the few ways that the couple known for their unusual child-naming choices are extremely non-unique. The world is full of little Harpers. And older ones, too. And Scouts. The name Atticus—its popularity spurred along, most recently, with the help of William Atticus Parker, son of Mary-Louise and Billy Crudup, and Atticus Affleck, son of Summer Phoenix and Casey—broke into the Social Security Administration’s list of the 1,000 top names for boys in 2004. In 2014, it occupied spot 370.
All that, of course, is almost entirely because of Nelle Harper Lee, who died on Friday at the age of 89. The characters the author imagined and the stories she told of them—the stuff not just of literature, but of film and television and comics and music—are more than page-bound characters and stories. The elements of To Kill a Mockingbird—“our national novel,” Oprah Winfrey called ithave been varnished by time. And polished, by the equal forces of memory and forgetfulness, into symbols of some of the things the current culture holds most dear, or tries to: justice, wisdom, decency, bravery, empathy. You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. The names Scout and Atticus—and, perhaps above all, the name Harper—reflect a respect not just for the arc of history, but for the hope that it does indeed bend toward justice.
Last year, however, those names became something they hadn’t really been in decades: complicated. “Harper,” in particular—the author, the person, the symbol—got complicated. Lee published (or, perhaps more specifically, HarperCollins published, with dubious consent from the ailing Lee) the novel that would prove to be both Lee’s first and her last: Go Set a Watchman. Which is, by most critics’ estimates, a good book but not a great one. And which is, as my colleague Sophie Gilbert put it, flawed by “a meandering, distinctly unfinished style; stilted dialogue; [and] an unsatisfactory ending.”
The book is more broadly flawed, too—as a cultural matter if not a strictly literary one—by the path Atticus turns out to have taken in his old age. This Atticus, now 72, spouts “abhorrent views on race and segregation,” The New York Times’ review of Watchman put it. He has rejected the work of the NAACP. He has attended a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. “The Negroes down here,” this Atticus observes, “are still in their childhood as a people.”
Oooof. Atticus’s evolution, on the one hand, Gilbert argues, makes the novel worth welcoming, as it “offers what’s become increasingly difficult and necessary in the five decades since Mockingbird was published: an unflinching attempt to wrestle with racial prejudice.” But it also complicates Atticus’s—and, by extension, Lee’s—status as an inviting cultural metaphor. “The depiction of Atticus in Watchman,” Michiko Kakutani noted in her review for The New York Times, “makes for disturbing reading, and for Mockingbird fans, it’s especially disorienting.”
Atticus may be an even more interesting character in Watchman than he was in Mockingbird; he is, however, a distinctly less admirable one. And Lee, for her part, may still be the author who gave us the man who has been called one of the “all-time coolest heroes in pop culture” and the “Best. Dad. Ever” and “the greatest hero of American film”; she is also, however, the person who revealed that this great champion of racial justice was also a racist.
The question, now, is whether that complication will be reflected in the legacy of Harper Lee. Will she be remembered for Jurist Atticus, or Racist Atticus? Will she be remembered as the author of a book so beloved, and so revered, and so culturally dilute, that it seems wrong to call it simply a “book”? Or as the author of the work that complicates Mockingbird’s tidy vision of right and wrong?

Both, of course. But if literary history is any indication, cultural memory will be both selective and, perhaps like history itself, biased toward justice. Instead of Watchman, as some have argued, “troubling the legacy of a literary hero,” Lee’s first and second book could well serve as simply a coda to her great, if otherwise single-work, career. “Harper,” along with “Atticus” and “Scout,” could thus remain symbolically pure.  

The immediate reactions to Lee’s death—the sense of love, the sense of loss, the recognition of her cultural and historical value—have, tellingly, focused on Mockingbird.

And if the trend continues—if Lee’s legacy is indeed honed and burnished to focus on Mockingbird—it would not be the first time. J.D. Salinger, in the cultural imagination, is not known as the author of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” or even of Franny and Zooey; he is remembered mostly for his “one-hit wonder,” The Catcher in the Rye. Margaret Mitchell’s Lost Laysen, released posthumously in 1997, made nary a dent in the legacy of the author who had also, during her lifetime, published Gone With the Wind. We remember people, in general, for the extremes of their accomplishment—the races won, the artistic heights reached, the evils perpetrated. Cultural memory, like human memory itself, is flexible, and fickle. It is also exclusive. Most of us, as George Eliot noted, will live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. Had Harper Lee simply published Go Set a Watchman—the book that is good but not great, and that lacks the soaring arc-of-history premise that her first novel boasted—she may well have lived, and died, in relative obscurity, along with the rest of us.
But Mockingbird, both fortunately and unfortunately for the reclusive Lee, prevented that. And its breadth—as a book that is so much more than a book, and as a cultural product, and as a symbol—may well mean that history treats it, effectively, as Lee’s own “one-hit wonder.” What may well happen to Lee is the same thing that happened to her characters: She will be remembered not for her complications, but for her simplicity. She will be in death what she had been for most of her life: a symbol of justice and kindness and of all that can be achieved when one little person tries to change a very large world. Nelle Harper Lee may have died, but Harper—the person who was so much more—will live on.