By Reece Hirsch
The most highly prized item on my bookshelf is a signed copy of the thirty-fifth anniversary edition of Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I know I’m not going out on a limb by singing the praises of Lee and “Mockingbird”; a case could be made that it’s the most well-loved American novel of the last 60 years. And like any book that has embedded itself so deeply in our culture, it finds ways to speak to a wide variety of readers in a wide variety of ways.
I’m not going to spend time here talking about the book’s obvious strengths, such as the indelible characters of Scout, Dill and Boo, or the now-underrated role it played in changing hearts and minds when the battles of the civil rights movement were still being fought. Instead, I’m going to focus on why it occupies a special place on my particular bookshelf.
I love Harper Lee’s book in part because I grew up in the South, and I can’t think of any writer who has captured the drama and boredom of growing up in a small Southern town like Lee did. My childhood was spent in places like Tallahassee and Pensacola, Florida, Kannapolis and Jacksonville, North Carolina, Decatur, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. I wouldn’t say that any of them matched up precisely with Lee’s lightly fictionalized Maycomb, Alabama (a stand-in for Monroeville), but it’s a world that I got a glimpse of before it started disappearing.
Another reason why I love Lee’s book is that she nearly single-handedly redeemed the much-maligned legal profession with the character of Atticus Finch. In my small way, I didn’t help matters any by taking a few potshots at big law firms in my first novel “The Insider.” But for every Mickey Haller cutting deals out of the back of a Lincoln, there’s always Atticus. Sure, he’s an idealized figure, but he’s much more than a cardboard hero. The nobility in Atticus was drawn in part from real Southern lawyers of that era who took cases that nobody wanted them to take. And the conversations between single-parent Atticus and Scout are a model of tough-minded sensitivity.
Lee also fascinates, and scares the hell out of me, as a writer because she never published a second book after “Mockingbird.” Watching the excellent documentary “Hey Boo: Harper Lee and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’” I found it unnerving to see the assembled evidence of Lee’s writing career after the blockbuster success of her debut. She is quoted about the work she’s doing on the next book and how she enjoys the process of writing “perhaps even more than she should.” There are indications that she was conducting extensive research. Mark Childress cites a letter that he received from Lee that was full of the distinctive voice and wit found in “Mockingbird.” There was no question that Lee was a genuine and gifted writer with a distinctive voice. So why didn’t she write another book? If you have that kind of talent, how do you just take your chips down and walk away from the table? If you’re a true writer, how can you not write?
Perhaps she said what she had to say about her childhood and the South so well in “Mockingbird” that was there was nowhere to go with her second book. In the documentary, her sister recounts that Lee said that she felt she just couldn’t top “Mockingbird.” I hate to think that because most writers take their best shot with their first novel and write the things that they know the best and are most passionate about. It’s just that most writers aren’t as wildly successful at it as Lee.
Lee hasn’t become a recluse, but she certainly isn’t a public figure, either. The signed copy of “Mockingbird” that I own was one of those that she signed at an extremely rare book signing that she conducted in Monroeville in 1995 in celebration of the thirty-fifth anniversary edition. I picked it up through eBay as a birthday present for my wife, and it is probably the favorite volume I have on my shelves.
This past weekend, I put the final touches on my second book, and it seemed like a good time to pay my respects to Lee because, for me, she’s a reminder to never underestimate the power of the blank page. No matter how my second book is regarded or what happens to it, I’m thankful that I’ve managed to fill those blank pages a second time, and I hope that I can do it again -- but I’m not about to take that for granted.