How Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' changed you

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: Harper Lee's 1960 novel remains an emotional gateway for young readers
  • He says it portrays the acceptance, and then understanding, of what it means to walk in somebody else's shoes

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)Any day now, we're constantly told, books will no longer exist and humankind will depend exclusively on images and tweets to tell its stories. From the latter half of the 20th century all the way through the first 15 years of the 21st, there's been endless chatter predicting the end of printed pages between binders. Or, at least, of their power and influence on people.

And yet, it was through much of this same period of time that a single book telling a slight, yet tender story of childhood, terror and injustice in a small Southern town was asserting its influence upon several generations of readers. Many were so inspired by the moral example set by the book's lawyer-hero that they went to law school.
Many more were guided by the book's gentle equanimity and humane wit counseling greater compassion toward others, regardless of how different they look -- or how strange they may seem.
    The book, of course, was "To Kill a Mockingbird," whose reclusive author Harper Lee died this week at age 89. Published in 1960, Lee's (at least somewhat) autobiographical novel, for the relative few who have neither read the book nor seen its equally-cherished 1962 movie adaptation, chronicles three fateful Depression-era years in the life of a 10-year-old tomboy named Scout Finch, growing up in a small Alabama town.
    Everything in the book revolves around a trial in which her kindly father Atticus defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
    Lee, known best to friends, like her childhood pal Truman Capote, by her first name, "Nelle," began writing the book during the 1950s while working as an airline reservation clerk in New York City, which was quite a ways from her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where her father, Amasa Coleman "A.C." Lee, practiced law.
    "To Kill a Mockingbird" was an overnight best-seller and a Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. Its arrival coincided with the peak years of the civil rights movement in the South and its implicit plea for tolerance, along with the persistent urgency of America's racial dialogue, has kept it in print and in schools for decades afterward.
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    Indeed, affection for the book is so abiding and strong that it has apparently withstood last year's controversial publication of Lee's only other novel, "Go Set a Watchman, "a longer, earlier draft of "Mockingbird" in which an older Atticus Finch is depicted as a far less racially tolerant man than he's shown in the earlier novel.
    Still, that affection is hardly universal. Some critics, even at the time it was first published, considered the book contrived and overly melodramatic.
    Flannery O'Connor, whose far-more forbidding fiction about the South has exerted its own powerful influence over succeeding generations, famously said of "Mockingbird" in one of her letters: "I think it's interesting that all the folks who are buying it don't know they're reading a child's book."
    Whether you choose to take O'Connor's sardonic observation as a put-down depends on how seriously you take novels for children -- or, if you prefer, "young adults." And one should take such books as seriously (as opposed to solemnly) as any 15-year-old, or even as the precocious 11-year-old I used to be, enthralled by the 1962 "Mockingbird" movie before reading the book a couple years later.
    And I wasn't alone among my baby-boom generation of readers, if the testimony assembled in Mary Murphy's 2010 documentary, "Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird" is any measure of the book's impact. Most of the film's talking heads -- including Anna Quindlen, James McBride, Rosanne Cash, Tom Brokaw, Richard Russo, Diane McWhorter and the unavoidable Oprah Winfrey -- are more or less part of the first wave of readers affected by "Mockingbird," in print and on-screen.
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    Within its celebratory context, Murphy's film deftly isolates the places in the novel that make our hearts bleed most indelibly. There is, for instance, the part where the black people consigned to the courtroom balcony throughout poor Tom Robinson's rape trial rise to their feet as Atticus stalks out alone in defeat.
    "Hey, Boo" depicts both print and film versions simultaneously as Winfrey's reading of the specific passage is juxtaposed against its cinematic counterpart with Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for playing Atticus. It's a shrewd moment in the documentary as it demonstrates to its viewers how much more resonant and vivid Lee's words are at evoking the emotional impact.
    But it's the documentary's title that keeps me emotionally connected to "Mockingbird." Those two words, "Hey, Boo," come at the moment in the movie when Scout (Mary Badham) coaxes the frightened neighborhood recluse Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) from the shadows. That moment, even more than the racial context of the story, conveys the essence of Lee's simple story: The open-hearted encounter of people we find odd or frightening.
    Human transactions are, of course, far more complicated than the relatively simple disclosures by "Mockingbird" can withstand -- which is why we read writers such as O'Connor or William Faulkner, whose 1948 novel, "Intruder in the Dust," bears a passing resemblance to Lee's.
    But there are worse fates for any novel than to become an enduring gateway for readers, young and old, toward accepting and, eventually, understanding what it means to walk in somebody else's shoes.
    The journeys all our hearts have made towards such enlightenment began with Nelle Harper Lee's memories. Those journeys haven't ended. Her memories live on. So will the book.