Why Harper Lee Matters

President George W. Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harper Lee, November 5, 2007 in the East Room of the White House.
President George W. Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Harper Lee, November 5, 2007 in the East Room of the White House. Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, died at the age of 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Even though she ended up producing what might very well be the closest we get to the Great American Novel, Lee chose to live a private, secluded life in her Southern hometown, staying clear from the spotlight despite the novel and its Oscar-winning film adaptation's massive success.

To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, became an instant classic. If you’re one of the few people who somehow managed not to read it in middle school, here are the Cliff's Notes version of the plot: the young Scout Finch, a tomboy living in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama (inspired by Lee’s youth in Monroeville), comes of age amid the Great Depression. The parallel plot, of course, is the crux of the novel: her father, the heroic Atticus Finch, represents a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Gregory Peck portrayed Finch in the film version (and earned an Academy Award for his performance), and he helped solidify Finch as a social justice hero who transcended the page and screen.

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Despite the book’s immediate success, Lee has been plagued by controversies since To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication. Lee shirked her status as a celebrity, choosing instead to live as anonymously as she could. That she did not produce another novel raised suspicions of her actual talent; even her friend Truman Capote, who served as the inspiration for the character of Dill Harris, insinuated that he himself wrote parts of it.

Last year, 55 years after its predecessor, a sort-of sequel was published. Go Set a Watchman, discovered and published in particularly dubious circumstances (there are still those who wonder if the elderly Harper Lee had full agency over its publication, considering the team of lawyers, agents, and editors who pushed it forward), revisited the characters of Lee’s first novel. What was likely a first draft of Mockingbird, the novel followed an adult Scout Finch, who visits her father in his hometown. It was, naturally, an immediate bestseller, though it did not receive the universal praise of Mockingbird — and it painted the beloved and heroic Atticus Finch in a less complimentary light.

Most of that pales in the shadow of Mockingbird's lasting legacy as one of the most important American novels ever written. It is a staple of English classes everywhere, and its perfect depiction of the Jim Crow–era South — the innocence of childhood paired with the cruelty of racial prejudice — makes it not just an American classic but an important title in the canon of Southern literature, as well. Lee’s brief bibliography may not make her a rival of Southern literary titans like William Faulkner or Flannery O'Conner (the latter of whom famously threw shade at Lee's novel in a letter to a friend, writing, "It's interesting that all the folks who are buying it don't know they are buying a children’s book."), but her unpretentious writing style certainly earned her a larger audience than her more esoteric contemporaries.

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While the book might be, for lack of a better word, a bit basic, that’s precisely what makes it not just easily digestible but so enduring. It’s easy to forget the racial tensions fueling American culture at the time of its publication (some might suggest those tensions have only eased in a superficial way). It's also striking that the concept of tolerance and equality was such a confounding concept that millions of readers can come to understand them from a popular novel. For better or worse, the greater public can learn morality from the popular entertainment it consumes. To Kill a Mockingbird earned a place in literary history not just because it is a charming and delicately tender novel about childhood and the inevitable loss of innocence when the evils of man manifest themselves before a young girl's eyes, it also promotes the simple concepts of humanity, equality, and grace — notions that shouldn’t have to be displayed to us by a novelist. Harper Lee taught us all those things, and she did so in the most beautifully artistic and creative form possible.

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