Last week, PBS aired a new “American Masters” episode titled “Harper Lee: Hey, Boo,” chronicling the story of Harper Lee’s life, in particular the benefactors who supported her writing, her sudden fame upon the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird and the release of the film adaptation, and her subsequent retreat into privacy.
The airing serendipitously dovetailed with my work on a CSEE project in which a group of English teachers and I are analyzing Lee’s novel through an ethical lens. The project’s focus at this point is an examination of certain key incidents or exchanges in the text that reveal how individuals make sense of the world around them morally, socially, and personally.
For instance, in the first chapter, Scout provides a brief history of the Radley family and in particular how “Boo” became a recluse. Young Arthur and some teenager friends engaged in a night of mischief that ultimately landed them all before the probate judge charged with disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and assault and battery. The judge sent all of the boys to the state industrial school, but Mr. Radley, considering the school akin to prison, assured the judge that if he turned Arthur over to him, he would guarantee his obedience. The result: “The doors of the Radley house were closed on weekdays as well as Sundays, and Mr. Radley’s boy was not seen again for fifteen years.” Yet, even before this incident, the Radley home and its occupants had always been viewed with suspicion. The family “kept to themselves, a predilection unforgivable in Maycomb.” They never attended church or socialized with neighbors, and no one knew what Mr. Radley did for a living.
According to the moral domain, situations are right or wrong based on issues like justice, fairness, and human welfare. Arthur was wrong to break the law; he stole a car and locked the local officer in an outhouse. However, his father’s decision to essentially imprison him in their home for 15 years, at least according to the social conventions of the 1930s, did not constitute a crime. According to the conventional or social domain, situations are right or wrong based on rules made by elders (especially for children) or by society (for adults). The moral domain exists outside of time and space, but the conventional domain changes with our fluid understanding of right and wrong. Today, we might label Mr. Radley’s action child abuse, circumscribed by the moral domain, but in the 1930’s, a man’s home was his castle, providing sanctuary from such judgments. Lastly, the personal domain considers actions that some might consider right or wrong, but that only an individual should have the right to decide. Not overtly religious or friendly, the Radley family live on the periphery of acceptability because they don’t conform to social norms.
This process of examining situations in the novel according to Larry Nucci’s domains of social reasoning is new for me. I’m accustomed to taking a more global approach to a text.
For me, Lee’s story redefines heroism. Her protagonist is not some comic strip caricature, some brave man who uses physical force against an evil opponent. Instead, Lee reveals that real strength and heroism means fighting the odds even when they are not in your favor. Atticus challenges racism in a small Southern town ruled by Jim Crow. The cantankerous Mrs. Dubose overcomes addiction, refusing to go to her death owned by anyone or anything. Lastly, Miss Maudie Atkinson laughs in the face of despair, declaring that the fire that destroyed her house will allow her room for a bigger garden. It’s a universally beloved story, my 9th graders’ favorite novel from middle school.
The documentary, “Hey Boo,” provides fresh insight into Harper Lee, helping me to appreciate this rare woman in a completely new way. To begin with, she befriended a young couple, Michael and Joy Brown, who lived in NYC with their two small sons. A composer, Michael had recently finished a show and was paid lucratively. Recognizing Lee’s talent as a writer, Michael and Joy decided to give that money to Lee who was then working as an airline ticket agent. Staying with the Browns for Christmas, Lee found an envelope on the tree whose note inside read, “You have one year off of your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” The scale of this act of munificence boggles my mind. The Browns had two young sons, yet they also cared deeply for Lee and wanted to support her talent. Even more impressive is their humility: they refuse any recognition for their gift, demurring, “She was a writer to the depths of her soul. It would have happened with or without us. All that we did was hurry it up a little.”
The documentary also highlights her eventual estrangement from Truman Capote, her best friend from childhood. Both she and Capote were aspiring writers. He also introduced Lee to the Browns, writing them, “I have a shy friend from Monroeville, Alabama, who is moving to New York. Her name is Nelle Harper Lee. Would you kindly look after her?” And, when Capote needed a research partner in preparation for his writing In Cold Blood, he turned to Lee who traveled to Kansas with him for four months. Without Lee, Capote would not have been able to gain access to the families or the police detectives as the people in Kansas were suspicious of his style and personality. Yet, when Lee published her novel and especially when she received the Pulitzer Prize, Capote was not supportive. He even slyly intimated in an interview with Dick Cavett that he had something to do with its composition. Extraordinarily, she never publicly responded to his comments. While Capote basked in the adulation he earned from the publication of In Cold Blood and reveled in his ability to shock and upend decorum, Lee drew inward, refusing all interviews after 1964. As one fellow writer characterized, “She turned away from the church of publicity, refusing to pray there.” Although she initially embraced Hemingway’s declaration that the “writer’s job is to tell the truth,” she resigned shortly thereafter, becoming as reclusive as Boo Radley to her admirers.
The documentary’s apt subtitle “Hey, Boo” acknowledges Lee’s need for privacy and her retreat from the literary world, but I felt that too many commentators assumed that she feared any future writing would bear too much public scrutiny. Instead, I suspect that she felt that no new truth could be revealed to eyes that could only read through the lens of her past success. However, I do wonder how she bore Capote’s selfish betrayal. Scout’s greeting – “Hey, Boo” – stands as a reaching out to someone radically different, how Capote must have been viewed in the Deep South. It’s the central message in the book, stripped of controversy or polemics. And so I can’t help but think that Capote’s disloyalty must have stung Lee bitterly.
Or perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps, I’m projecting, and Lee had a little more of Atticus in her than the rest of us. After all, her novel is an indictment of racism, but not the racist. Lee seemed to understand this distinction in her own life. When Scout asks Atticus why he’s willing to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, Atticus admits that few in Maycomb County respect his decision. He explains, “’It’s different this time,’ he said. ‘This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.’” Lee didn’t let animosity and resentment rule her life; instead, she seemed able to look beyond the individual to see a wider potential. Her attitude seems akin to Atticus’s response to Scout’s final assessment of Boo as “real nice” – “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”