Bodies of Work: on Harper Lee (1926-2016)

Jackie Hedeman on embracing Harper Lee's untidy legacy

Photo courtesy of the author 

Photo courtesy of the author 

LET'S TALK ABOUT the time I dressed as a ham for Halloween. I didn’t use chicken wire, but I did cut an oblong eyehole out of a large cardboard box and painted the entire thing an unappetizing brown, save the three letters on the front: HAM. It wasn’t rounded like a flask; instead, it was long and thermos-like, with my two bare legs peeking out of the bottom. There were no holes for my arms, so they stayed stuck to my sides beneath the cardboard. At the Halloween party I went to, I bopped back and forth on an overcrowded dance floor while the people surrounding me chanted, “Go, ham! Go, ham!”

I was there, dancing, dressed like that, because of a haunting. It’s an image I can’t get out of my head: two children, walking home through the trees, hear a noise behind them. They turn and see nothing. They continue to walk. The noise resumes. They turn and, again, see nothing. One of the children is dressed as a ham. You know this if you’ve read or seen To Kill a Mockingbird, and you also know what happens next. Bob Ewell springs out of nowhere to attack them, and then so does Boo Radley, to save them.

Harper Lee’s death made me want to crawl back inside my ham costume—not out of grief, but because I knew what was coming: the public outpouring. Everyone would fall over themselves to prove that they had the truest connection to To Kill a Mockingbird, or that they had taken the most or least offence at Go Set a Watchman. My hunker-down reaction perhaps indicates that I am no different. After all, what was that ham anecdote but an establishment of my credentials? Why would I reject our communal mourning if I didn’t somehow feel more entitled to grieve?

Lee has been described in Salingerian terms as ‘reclusive,’ meaning she led an ordinary life.

The thing is, I’m not. I read To Kill a Mockingbird first as a child, on my own, and then again at school. And then again, later, at another school. And then again, finally, as an adult. I imagine this mapping of my history with the book could overlay that of many Americans. Unique to To Kill a Mockingbird is its persistence, and the persistence of a single way of engaging with it. We are trapped in it. Think of how long we had alone with To Kill a Mockingbird to form our own attachments, either in the classroom or by ourselves. We had the book, we had a single, definitive film adaptation, we had our shared opinions and conversations, and that was about it.

We certainly didn’t have Harper Lee descending from on high with J.K Rowling-esque retroactive pronouncements. Lee has been described in Salingerian terms as “reclusive,” meaning she led an ordinary life. She resisted our desire to take ownership of her along with her characters, though she had to have known that a mythos would be made for her. After all, this was the woman who gave us Boo Radley, almost in the same manner as Boo Radley gave Scout and Jem those dolls made out of soap.

Go Set a Watchman was a disruption. Far from merely being—as various outlets had it—first draft juvenilia, an attempt to cash in on the part of unscrupulous caretakers, or both, it was also an unexpected and unwelcome dose of relevance. The complication—the tarnishing—of the legacy of Atticus Finch resonates because it is so entirely plausible, if not in keeping with the character as we understood him.

She resisted our desire to take ownership of her along with her characters, though she had to have known that a mythos would be made for her.

To Kill a Mockingbird lives in a world where people are good because they do good things even when it’s hard, even when they are bound to fail. Go Set a Watchman admits that people often do good things for the wrong reasons, that action is not always a measure of character. Trained to read through To Kill a Mockingbird’s lens, I was unsure what to do with Go Set a Watchman. In it, I encountered a shameful reality, when maybe what I had anticipated was more of the false clarity of childhood.

I encountered a shameful reality, when maybe what I had anticipated was more of the false clarity of childhood.

After Scout, Jem, and Boo are clear of the woods, Sheriff Heck Tate makes his famous assessment, running counter to all evidence: “Bob Ewell fell on his knife.” Presumably I speak for the majority of readers when I say: we are fine with this. Bob Ewell was, after all, a racist child abuser. Sheriff Tate’s reasoning has less to do with hand-wavey concepts of justice, and more to do with a specific way of doing good. If he were to reveal Boo’s role in saving Scout and Jem, Sheriff Tate predicts, “Know what'd happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin' my wife'd be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes. To my way of thinkin', Mr. Finch, taking the one man who's done you and this town a great service an' draggin' him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that's a sin.” I love Harper Lee for her anticipatory rejection of our figurative angel food cake, for refusing to engage with us on the level we felt we were owed.

It’s a puzzling body of work, with one novel so loved for so long, and the other a late-released hand grenade. It’s a body of work made all the more puzzling by the degree to which we do or do not map Harper Lee’s life onto the lives of her fictional characters. Young Truman Capote famously provided the inspiration for next-door neighbor Dil Harris, and a handful of points of overlap between Scout’s life and Lee’s gesture toward other similarities. To Kill a Mockingbird is, however, unquestionably fiction, albeit fiction that has, over time and distance, come to stand and speak for its author.

I love this, in the way of a fiction-loving nonfiction writer. That the work should speak on behalf its creator so clearly and piercingly that it comes to overshadow her seems to be both lovely and ominous in equal measure. But that’s To Kill a Mockingbird, where Scout’s mode of recollective narration makes childhood a haunting. She is always in the story, a child, even as she looks back at it. And perhaps we are there too, and Harper Lee, circling and re-circling the story, getting closer to truth each time.


JACKIE HEDEMAN is an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University, where she serves as Reviews & Interviews Editor for The Journal. Her work has appeared in Watershed Review and The Manifest-Station


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