By Sam Burnham
2016 has proven to be a year of loss as far as influential entertainers are concerned. We've said goodbye to David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Dan Haggerty, and Glenn Frey to name a few. Social media has been abuzz over the cruelty of the year thus far. We've seen the obituaries of many of the designers of our memories from youth and childhood. It doesn't really take food off our table but it does grab out our emotions to learn that those particular creative forces won't be wowing us with any new memories.
Yesterday, as I was leaving the GPB studio after a radio appearance, I learned of yet another death this year has sprung on us. I think this one is the hardest yet for me. Given her age, recent health challenges, and a bizarre gut feeling, I knew the instant I heard her name over the radio that the words that followed it would not be pleasant. We've lost Harper Lee.
Harper Lee wasn't going to wow us with any new stories. I accepted that as my eyes passed over the last few words of Go Set a Watchman with a sad sense of satisfaction that Ms. Lee had told us all she was going to tell. She had given me just enough information to know: 1) that Jem was resting in peace, 2) Atticus was not only still the prototype Southern man but also complex, having flaws that made him better, and, most importantly, 3) Scout still loved Dill and he was still out there waiting for the moment she realized he was the only man she wanted.
But I knew Watchman was where the story would end. I had joked that Harper Lee was going to quietly wait out another 50 years and then spring another story on us. But I knew that a silly joke was all that would come of it. Unless she has another manuscript shoved behind and old chifferobe somewhere in Monroeville, we've read the last words from her pen.
But I was okay with that. To be honest, Harper Lee didn't have to write another thing. I was content in the knowledge she was in Monroeville doing what she did. She never left that quint Southern town. She wasn't wasting away in New York City eating cream cheese bagels and living in a 57th floor condo off royalties of the Broadway smash hit Mockingbird starring Liza Minelli as Scout, Gabriel Byrne as Boo Radley, and Michael Flatley as Atticus. For that, I'm thankful. I'm thankful that until her health intervened she spent her days shopping in the local surpermarket, feeding the birds in the local park, sitting on the front porch being Southern, and living among people who knew her as their neighbor, not as a celebrity.
Harper Lee stayed true to herself which, in turn, made her true to The South. In my mind, that above all makes her a hero and worthy of our fandom. The next time I pass the Monroeville exit en route to Gulf Shores, I won't smile in the knowledge that Harper Lee is there, just being Harper Lee. I won't wonder if she's on the front porch scribbling away on some masterpiece, only to throw it in the fire before bedtime. I won't wonder if the pigeons are happy to see her coming. I'll probably take one of those opportunities to actually take the exit, look around the small town, take a pause at a grave marker that will remind the world that such a woman lived. And I'll be thankful for a story, in the form of two books, that gave us a good long look at ourselves, helped us to see the good and the bad in us all, brought us together in some ways and showed us the divide in other ways while challenging us with the suggestion that "there's just one kind of folks. Folks."
Godspeed, Harper Lee. We'll never forget you.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire