We should all stand up—Harper Lee is passing

Southern Journal: Spirit of the Mockingbird
Credit: Jack Unruh

It is foolish, I know. But I choose to believe it, how one of these evenings, when the world slows down enough to listen to the falling dusk, we will catch the song of a mockingbird. And maybe we will think about her, and the enduring story she told. Foolishness, sure. Yet how lovely, to think that a person can live forever as long as one last bird sings in the dying light of one more day.

When they told me she had passed peacefully in her sleep in Monroeville, I do not recall a great sadness. Harper Lee passed into legend, into spirit, long ago. I do not claim to have known her; I saw her once, and she was kind and complimentary and I walked away on air. All I truly know, I know through the pages of one great book, and that, as in that birdsong, is where her spirit resides.

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird condemned and attempted to explain the meanness and hypocrisy of her South, while celebrating the fragile notion of kindness and common decency. It was not a cure, and people went on about their meanness unchecked for a long while. But her story endured, and reminded us, even the sorriest of us, who we could be if only we did not abandon our finer nature. One of the smartest men I know called it "her gospel," and I am not smart enough to say it any better.

Ms. Lee presented her sermon, as all people of great spirit do, in a remarkable story. My favorite part is the scene she creates in the courthouse as Atticus, failing to save Tom Robinson from a backward jury, exits the silent courtroom, and all the black people in that courtroom, relegated to the balcony, rise in respect. His daughter, Scout, is told to rise, too, to honor her father even in defeat, though it takes her a while to understand. I do not believe much in moral victories, but thick as I am, the beauty and power in that passage still gives me a chill.

Some, apparently stone-blind to the backwardness that would linger as some Southerners substituted racial slurs for legislation to target again the most vulnerable, would question its relevance in a modern world. But Harper Lee's gospel was always there, assigned to high school students by teachers who did their part to spread the great message and open minds. I have heard critics say it was a naïve book, simplistic, but I know a little about our South, how the things that make us most ashamed of our past—and present—are not always our actions but our silence. Her words were our tonic, our balm.

I have written that I did not agree with her in full. Her villains were poor whites, her heroes a frayed gentry, as if poor whites alone had the power to shape the landscape. Her daddy was a lawyer and she told it from her perspective, as was her prerogative as a novelist. But her Atticus, even though too good to be true, would somehow solidify, and take on life. People talk of Atticus as if they sat next to him at Waffle House, or saw him in Target buying Pop Tarts. That, by God, is a trick.

It remains, in the lore of our people, a sin to kill a mockingbird. But those simple words have taken on a power and beauty and meaning beyond language, to become a thing to live forever.