Harper Lee taught us to recognize love

Photo from the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird

My classmate’s drawing of the sleepy town of Maycomb—the courthouse, the Finch household, the school, Mrs. Dubose’s camellia bushes, the Ewell’s shack by the dump, Tom Robinson’s home in the Black neighborhood—remained on the board for much of the school year. Though its purpose was to provide geographic context for the action in To Kill a Mockingbird, its result was instead a sense of total immersion: We visualized each chapter and each moment, tracing each step of Scout and Jem as they grew up in the shadow of the South.

In later years at my high school in Charleston, South Carolina, we would read William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Robert Penn Warren. In later years, Dewey Dell would do it because she couldn’t help it and Darl, whose heart was too full for words, would be locked away; Flannery O’Connor’s menagerie of the grotesque—broken birds and warped minds, misfits and lawn jockeys—would captivate and haunt us; and Robert Penn Warren’s vast spider web would catch us, however unwilling or unwitting, and wrap us in a world of consequences where the sins of the father haunt the son and where the land eats its own. But freshman year was for Harper Lee.

If you were to read a plot synopsis of To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel would seem very similar to those other works, very much a part of the tapestry of Southern Gothic: A small Southern town obsessed with heritage, honor, and history is engrossed and torn apart by a rape case; a Black man is torn from his home and family to pay the price a White man cannot and will not pay. That same White man sexually abuses and impregnates his daughter several times over several years and forces her to care for them; he then seeks to recover the dignity he lost at court by robbing the lawyer of his children.

And yet, the book itself is a different thing than its plot suggests. Whereas the South—our world, our home—was presented as a dark and lurid place by Faulkner, O’Connor, Warren, and others, we found in To Kill a Mockingbird that same deeply and distressingly troubled land augmented by a glimmering hope of redemption. Harper Lee wrote the South as she saw it—there was no whitewashing, no nonsense about the Lost Cause—and yet she saw it as neither incurably dark nor irrevocably broken. Harper Lee was our vaccine, inoculating us against the hopelessness in her contemporaries’ novels and against the fatal diseases of the South. To Kill a Mockingbird carried the disease, but also contained the key to its defeat: When we felt the weight of the past too acutely, we could always return to that porch in Maycomb—and remember that injustice is neither insurmountable nor all-encompassing. For me, a white boy growing up in Charleston, the cradle of the Confederacy, this gleam of hope and promise of change disrupted the allure of easy complacency.

Ironically, this is the very reason why To Kill a Mockingbird’s literary status is uncertain. Because the book is not as dark as The Sound and the Fury or as lurid as “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” because it is not grandly tragic or artfully hopeless, some argue that it is not “Literature with a capital ‘L.’” Pointing to the folksy narration, the frivolity of the first section, the moral lessons, and the triumph of love, many critics classify Harper Lee’s magnum opus as a work steeped not in wisdom, but in naiveté.

This isn’t so. Without the folksiness the novel is not a Southern novel; its ingredients could be mixed to produce a similar novel in any other region. Without the whimsical and endearing first section, the children can neither learn nor grow. Without the moral teachings, there is neither hope nor guidance for that growth. These different notes all converge in Scout, whose innocence enables and bridges the disparate sections of the novel. We see the world, pockmarked by racial injustice and moral depravity as it is, through the eyes of a child. In showing us Maycomb through Scout’s lens of worldly innocence and of innocent hope, Lee refused to allow the South to be overwhelmed by its ghosts. Lee acknowledged the horror of the past, yet refused to allow it become an ordinary part of the landscape.

Rather than attempt to disguise Scout’s naiveté or apologize for the tomboy’s childishness, Lee showed us that innocence can be as observant as it is blind. Scout sees through the veneer of anonymity the lynch mob clings to and sees the humanity underneath—she sees a young boy’s father in Mr. Cunningham when he is at his lowest outside of Tom Robinson’s cell. Scout hears the contrast in Calpurnia’s diction when she is working in the family kitchen or speaking at the Black church and asks her why she feels like she needs to speak two different ways. Scout recognizes, in the moment of redemptive hope, Boo Radley without having to be told.

That beautiful moment—“Hey, Boo.”—flashed through my head when a student told me that Harper Lee had died. It is the culmination of the entire book’s drama, the climax of the internal conflict. This anagnorisis is only enabled, though, by the resolution of the external conflict, which occurswhen Bob Ewell ambushes Scout and Jem in the woods. Trapped in her costume and unable to see what is happening around her, Scout listens. She hears Jem’s pain, she hears the arrival of another man, she hears the breathlessness and the grunts and the struggle, and—finally—she hears one man die as the other, shuffling and winded, picks up her brother.

As she lies there helpless in her ham costume, Scout’s new world bears little resemblance to the idyllic adventures and games in the first part of the book. After Tom’s conviction and after the conflict in the woods, threats are no longer shadows or whispers or creaks; threats are men armed with ropes and with knives and with poisoned minds. Scout has seen terror and hatred up close. She has watched it send a Black man to die and she has watched it try to break and kill her brother. Her innocence is lost in the blood-dimmed tide. Her childhood is over.

Lagging behind her wounded brother and their unknown savior with her world turned topsy-turvy, Scout watches the man stagger under the weight of Jem’s limp body—under the weight of his love—as he carries him home. It is a Dickensian moment: like Miss Pross fighting Madam Defarge to save her Ladybird in A Tale of Two Cities, love and hate clash that night in the woods. Arthur Radley, “Boo,” fought to protect the brother and sister; his love and care for “his” children enables him, a weak and pallid recluse with hands that had never seen the sun, to overcome hate and to protect them.

Despite all that she has seen—or perhaps because of it—Scout recognizes Boo. Boo, for much of the book, had been a monster rather than man. He was always present, but always out of sight, and the children had never met him. It is an incredible moment, then, when Scout, seeing her brother, hurt but alive, and seeing the love radiating from the eyes of the stranger standing in the bedroom, intuitively knows her savior is Boo. Scout recognizes love in a world plagued and defined by hate.

Boo, in his own way, is innocent. Shut away from the vicissitudes of the world, he is apart from the daily life of Maycomb, apart from the hideousness of the trial and the lynch mob, apart from the simmering anger and lingering resentment. Yet it is Boo the recluse, not the experienced and wise Atticus, who saves Scout and Jem from Bob Ewell. Surely, Atticus had thought, no man would be desperate enough to attack children. Thrust into the crucible of hatred and indecency, Scout and Jem are saved and redeemed by innocence.

Boo is the surrogate father who was there for the children when Atticus was not, and Atticus realizes this as Jem rests peacefully: “Thank you for my children, Arthur.” At the very end, as Scout stands on Boo Radley’s porch, Lee subtly plays with pronouns and antecedents, shifting the “he” and “his” in “he watched his children’s heart break” from Atticus to Boo. In that moment, fatherhood sweeps from Atticus to Boo: Jem and Scout are, in the very next line, “Boo’s children.”

To me and to many, Harper Lee, who died in her sleep on Friday, was and will always be Boo. While her fellow Southern writers led public lives and explored the darkest recesses of the Southern psyche, Lee, like Boo, was content to stay home and watch from behind the curtain. Scout squeezes Boo’s hand as he walks back into the house; it is the last time, she says, that she sees him—a fitting image for an author who wished for her legacy to rest on a single book. When we read To Kill a Mockingbird, we became Harper Lee’s children: Like Boo, Lee acted as a surrogate to us. Like Boo, Harper Lee taught us to recognize love.