Harper Lee was never comfortable with the instant and lasting fame that her début novel propelled her into, she even said on radio in 1964 that she was “hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers.” Little could she have ever known that what she had actually created was a novel that would touch the lives of people the world over.
The influential writer died in her sleep whilst residing at an assisted living centre in Monroeville, Alabama on Friday 19th February. She was 89 years old.
As a Pulitzer Prize winner, Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird has featured as a major part of education for decades, not just as an example of superb literature, but as a novel with a social voice. Written and published at a time when the tide had not long begun to turn against racism. In fact, it wasn’t three years after the publication of the book, and one year after the film version of 1962, that Martin Luther King’s famously told the world his dream.
That really gives a sense of the social context of Lee’s book and how ahead of its time it really was. Above all, how brave it was.
As one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century it packed a fair punch with issues of rape and race inequality, and had a protagonist of true integrity and heroism that captured readers. The inclusion of a gentle humour and endearing warmth in the novel also made it an accessible text and possibly gave the story its entry point into schools, colleges and universities.
It is hard to find any list to top novels “of all time” or “books to read before you …die” that doesn’t include “To Kill a Mocking Bird”, and most of the greatest novelists of modern way would probably cite it as having been an influence them in some way. But why? How did it capture society in such a powerful way? Perhaps it is in the exploration of humanity – its brutality and its potential for justice. There is something in Atticus Finch’s character as a model of moral guidance, the risks he took in his own life to fight for a central human “good”, that speaks directly from Lee’s own values.
It is also hard to think of a modern equivalent, but in a way there are a few crossovers with John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” of 1989 – which was adapted for film in 1996. Considering that a stage version of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” débuted in 1990 it is hard to imagine that John Grisham’s work could have been written without having looked back at the thirty year history of a book that has, to date, sold over 40 million copies worldwide. Grisham’s novel was of course written from a different perspective, tapping into the complex way the law is applied in a very modern legal system where politics and showmanship, and extremes of emotion and legal technicality complicate the human tale that Lee told.
It wasn’t until July 2015 that Lee released her second novel, “Go Set a Watchmen” which was actually drafted in 1957 – before her début – and it will be some time before we can see what mark that novel will have on far more developed and racially aware society. Although not written as a continuance of the first novel, it is set at a later date. That book was released amidst mixed controversy about its release since the manuscript had only been discovered by accident.
Nevertheless, as we continue through yet another cruel year that is taking so many great names from us, it is fair to say that the literary world has lost one of its true inspirations. Generations of adults and children, readers and writers, film makers and critics, have grown up with Harper Lee’s world-changing novel. The vast majority of our greatest writers spend a life time writing dozens of novels trying to achieve what Harper Lee did with just one.