She may have only written one book (okay, technically two)but Harper Lee was a giant in American letters. It takes a lot of talent to write a book that stands the test of time the way To Kill a Mockingbird has. It is not just a coming-of-age novel, it is not just a tale of the race issues that fracture our country; To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those rare books that captures life itself.
Like a lot of people, I first read Ms. Lee’s classic when I was a freshman in high school. I expected it to be preachy, and I hate it when anyone gets up on a soapbox, but I quickly discovered that Harper Lee did what all good writers do: she tells the story honestly and lets the good, the bad, the blood, the honor, and the sins of her characters spill out naturally. Atticus, Scout, and Jem felt as real to me as the people who lived on my street. And I can honestly say that was the first time I felt that way about any novel.
When I was in graduate school, back in the dark ages it feels like, I remember we discussed if there could ever be a life-affirming novel. For a bunch of cynical grad students the answer came to a general “No.” And to be honest most novels are not that life affirming. But I think To Kill a Mockingbird is life affirming. Scout and Jem survive, Atticus fights for human dignity, and though there is tragedy, as there is everyday, the protagonists come out the other side with love, empathy, and courage.
But besides being a positive novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is simply incredibly written on a technical level. A lot of writers who achieve a certain fame suffer a type of backlash from the literary and academic community. But To Kill a Mockingbird is almost a perfect novel—its architecture, use of archetypes, and sentences are so strong that you read it like you would some suspense novel: ravenously. You see the small town, you feel the heat, you can smell the courthouse. Ms. Lee isn’t just in the same ballpark as J.D. Salinger (to whom she is often compared), she writes on the level of Tolstoy and Twain.
Ms. Harper Lee, you once wrote that courage is “when you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” I hope more people read your work and face the world with that type of courage today, tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Writer living in the hill country of Texas