Some of the nation’s foremost experts on the intersection of law and literature discussed the moral significance of Harper Lee’s novels Friday, March 3, at The University of Alabama School of Law.
The occasion was a symposium on The Legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird: Advocacy in an Unjust Society. The conference explored the life and legacy of Harper Lee, how literature can influence social change and how lawyers should practice law in an unjust society.
Among the participants was John Grisham, author and two-time winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. Mr. Grisham spoke about “Enacting Social Change through Literature.”
Grisham has been asked over the years to compare his debut novel to Lee’s work. Grisham’s A Time to Kill tells the story of a white lawyer defending a black man in Mississippi, while Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is about a white lawyer defending a black man in Alabama. Despite these structural similarities, Grisham said the books are quite different.
“When I wrote A Time to Kill, I was not thinking about To Kill a Mockingbird. I didn’t see a parallel,” Grisham said. “Read the first chapter of A Time to Kill, and you will realize this is a very different book than the first chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Grisham, the author of more than 35 books, said he plans to continue to write books about legal issues he would like to address, including sentencing disparities, student debt linked to for-profit law schools, Guantanamo Bay, for profit prisons, sexual abuse of women in prisons and cyber crime.
There are “so many stories to tell, so many issues to expose, so much injustice to explore,” he said. “I just turned 62. I just hope I have the time.”
Earlier, Alabama Historian Wayne Flynt provided a glimpse into Lee’s life. He painted a portrait of a woman with a sharp wit, one who knew the lines of King Lear by heart and recited them during a performance at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, one who owned the complete works of C.S. Lewis, one who had a depth of knowledge about the law and the Bible.
Teachers around the world have been assigning Lee’s book to their students since its publication in 1960 to study ethical and moral matters, he said.
“I’ve long argued that the novel itself, and the movie that resulted from it, made that piece of literature the most unifying, single icon in American popular culture,” Flynt said. “Although Americans disagree about the values of the book and the meaning of book and the nobility of the characters in the book, I have never lectured anywhere where I had to explain the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Flynt will publish Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee in May. The book is based on letters he and Lee exchanged for more than 25 years. In those letters, they traded stories and opinions on topics that were both personal and professional. They wrote about their families, books, Alabama history and social values, and health concerns.
“The secret to our relationship is I never treated her like a marble statue,” Flynt said. “She, after all, was a real live human being.”
Presenters at the symposium were:
Robert Atkinson, Florida State University College of Law
Devon Carbado, UCLA School of Law
Jenny Carroll, The University of Alabama School of Law
Judy Cornett, University of Tennessee College of Law
Wayne Flynt, author, historian, and professor emeritus at Auburn University
Richard McAdams, University of Chicago Law School
Anil Mujumdar, partner, Zarzaur, Mujumdar & Debrosse