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Remembrance: Harper Lee Taught Us Empathy

With the death of Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I have revisited one of the conundrums of my life: Why was I never exposed to this American classic when it was new?

I was almost 10 in 1960, when the book was published, and I was 13 when the film arrived in theaters. It seemed like the perfect kind of film for our family to patronize, but we never did. So I keep wondering why.

Since my parents are gone, there’s no one to answer that question. Could the book and the movie have been considered too potent for a pre-adolescent to absorb, living here in Louisville at the dawn of the civil rights era? There were never any racist jokes or epithets in our home. We dutifully watched historic events -- the 1963 March on Washington, interviews with Martin Luther King Jr., the Selma march -- on television and were encouraged to respect the nonviolent movement King led.

I recently looked up an advertisement from The Courier-Journal for the opening of the movie at the Kentucky Theatre (now home of the Marketplace on Theatre Square), and it looked like just the sort of movie we might have been taken to, that spring of 1963. Something deep down makes me think that parents, who carefully guarded what we saw, didn’t think the time was right or that we were old enough to be exposed to the racism that was central to the story.

It’s easy to be critical in retrospect, without the opportunity to do any real fact-finding. But I am grateful thousands of other parents had a different perspective over the half-century since then, and that my own children studied the novel in school and cherish the movie, as I have come to do in recent years.

In my reading about the book and its author this week, I was surprised to see that the critics didn’t think a lot of it back in 1960. The Courier-Journal’s book page made no mention of it through the year 1960, although, to its credit, a front page story was written when Lee won the Pulitzer in April 1961.

It really doesn’t matter what the critics thought. Readers in the summer of 1960, and in every year since then, took Lee’s fictionalized memoir of her childhood in Alabama to their hearts, and in the last 56 years it has sold more than 40 million copies. It’s a story of racial injustice in the Jim Crow South as told through a child’s eyes. The courtroom drama centered upon the narrator’s father, Atticus Finch, is among the best in American fiction, and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus in the novel’s film version was voted “top film hero” of all time in an American Film Institute survey in 2003.

Lee’s own life was as mysterious as her fictional heroine, Scout, was straightforward. Born in 1926, a Pulitzer Prize winner at age 35, she became a recluse at 36, never again giving an interview. Until the final year of her life, she never published another book. And that one, a prequel to “Mockingbird” called “Go Set a Watchman,” was inevitably a disappointment, for all its merits.

By refusing to become a literary celebrity like her childhood friend Truman Capote, Harper Lee instead became perhaps far more famous because she was so inaccessible. J.D. Salinger, author of “Catcher in the Rye,” similarly vanished, at almost exactly the same time.

In the last decade or so, tenacious writers -- or just lucky ones -- have been able to add to Harper Lee’s fame with a notable biography (Charles Shields’ “Mockingbird,” published in 2006) and a chatty memoir by writer and former neighbor Marja Mills, “The Mockingbird Next Door” (2014). Lee denied any link to either book, but the essence of each rings true, and they provide the legion of her fans with a glimpse of what happened to this admired author once she left the public eye.

I realize now that “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a timely bridge in America between North and South, white and black, at a time when such links were critically necessary. It showed that regardless of where you live, or whatever your experiences there, good people exist right up there with bad people.

Understanding comes with knowledge, Harper Lee told us through Scout’s appreciation of Atticus, when he said:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Thanks, Harper Lee. You taught us to do that. And though we may wish we had heard more from you in the last 50 years, we’re grateful for the rich legacy you left us.

Keith Runyon is a retired editorial page editor and book editor of The Courier-Journal.