When I read the news last week that Harper Lee had died at the age of 89, to say I was saddened to hear of her passing is an understatement. I always feel a pang of sympathy when I learn that someone I admire has died, but it’s difficult to feel truly sad about someone I’ve never even met. I hope they are at peace and wish their loved ones well, but eventually, the newsworthy headline settles in as fact and, like most people, I move on with my day. Writing it out like this does feel somewhat callous, but it’s true.
I have never met Harper Lee.
And yet, I still felt genuine sadness.
I was thirteen-years-old the first time I read To Kill A Mockingbird. Like most people I know, it was assigned reading for English class. I distinctly remember half of my class complaining that we had to read a chapter a week. I read the first half of the book that night. Admittedly, being the bibliophile that I am/was, that wasn’t uncommon for me. But there was something about that book that was a definite page-turner.
To Kill A Mockingbird and Harper Lee has always been shrouded in mystery and controversy. How much of Mockingbird did Lee really write? How much influence did her editor Tay Hohoff or her good friend Truman Capote have on her writing? Why did she only write one novel, and then release a “sequel” five decades later?
Honestly, these questions don’t matter. Lee had a seed in her mind about a story. That story turned into an award-winning novel. That novel was adapted into an award-winning film. Those awards and accolades pale in comparison to what that seed actually did: It inspired, and continues to inspire, people to always do the right thing.
Lee leaves behind a powerful legacy that cannot be denied. Mockingbird changed hearts and minds and still has the ability to do so. I was thirteen when I first read Mockingbird, and I still revisit it often. It's one of those books I imagine I will always keep in my personal library.
Thank you, Harper Lee, for inspiring so many people to always do right by people, no matter who they may be.
Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
• The Measure of Harper Lee