People: Harper Lee

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the writer Harper Lee, having studied her novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in Literature classes. Her name, already globally recognised, has recently risen to fame again, but this time for her newest (and more controversial) novel, ‘Go Set a Watchman’.

In conjunction with her newest novel, here is a short biography on the famed author Harper Lee.

Harper Lee (full name Nelle Harper Lee) was born on April 28, 1926 (89 years old this year). The youngest of four children, she grew up as a tomboy in a small town. Her father was a lawyer, a member of Alabama state legislature and also owned a part of the local newspaper. She had a close childhood friend, named Truman Capote, who was often bullied for being sensitive and wearing fancy clothes. Truman lived with his mother’s relatives in town, due to his being abandoned by his parents. Truman, like Harper Lee, eventually became a writer and wrote a nonfiction book called ‘In Cold Blood’, based on a murder case.

As you can see, Harper Lee’s childhood life is actually very similar to her character Scout’s life as seen in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

In July 1960, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was published. The following year, it won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize award and other literary awards. In 1962, Horton Foote wrote a screenplay based on the book and adapted it into a movie. The movie went on to receive eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch.

‘Go Set a Watchman’ is actually based on the later lives of the characters in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It was sent to a publisher in 1957, but he rejected it and asked her to revise the story and make the main character, Scout, a child. Harper Lee worked on it for two years and it eventually became ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was thought to be lost, until it was discovered by Harper Lee’s lawyer in a safe. Later, it was announced in February this year that HarperCollins would be publishing ‘Go Set a Watchman’, to general excitement of the public (myself included).

However, not everyone enjoyed the revival of Harper Lee’s writing career.

‘Go Set a Watchman’ was met with shocked reactions from almost everyone – and for good reason too, because it featured a racist Atticus Finch, among other unexpected character changes. The global community, who have mostly grown up admiring Atticus as an ideal father figure, has now balked at Atticus version 2.0 showing racist attitudes, lobbying for segregation and even joining the Ku Klux Klan.

Some have tried to justify Atticus’s change of heart. According to the New York Times, ‘In “Mockingbird”, Atticus was a role model for his children, Scout and Jem – their North Star, their hero, the most potent moral force in their lives. In “Watchman”, he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout’.

So what do you think? Is ‘Go Set a Watchman’ an insightful and relevant novel? Or should Harper Lee have left Atticus, Scout and Jem’s famed story alone?

Soh Wen Shuen (3S)


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