Revered 89-year-old author Harper Lee died today. Lee was best known for her ineffable novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”—a piece of literature so deeply etched into the American cultural fabric that most schools mandate it must be taught.
Lee was a brilliant, enigmatic writer. After publishing “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1960—and winning a Pulitzer Prize for it—she never wrote another novel again, joining the ranks of one-story wonder authors such as Margaret Mitchell and Anna Sewell. (Although there was the controversial release of a prequel, “Go Set a Watchman,” last year, it was essentially an earlier draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and many do not consider it a separate work of Lee’s.)
She became reclusive and gave very few interviews in the coming years, although she once said, “all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama."
She certainly achieved something of the sort.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is, unequivocally, one of the great American classics. Since its release, it has sold over 40 million copies and continues to impart knowledge to new generations of readers about race, prejudice, and justice.
The novel shaped the way many Americans view racial injustice and race relations. Set in the 1930s South, an era of segregation and Jim Crow, it details the story of a white man defending a black man who is unfairly accused of raping a white woman, while simultaneously conveying the innocent, wonderful adolescence of its narrator, Scout. As William Grimes of the New York Times puts it, “’To Kill a Mockingbird’ was really two books in one: a sweet, often humorous portrait of small-town life in the 1930s, and a sobering tale of race relations.”
The way Lee crafted her characters and approached civil rights resonated with many individuals in ways issues of race had not before—it enlightened white Americans to the realities of discrimination and the difficulties of overcoming this in a society so ingrained with prejudice.
The same message, so relevant in the 1960s, applies more than ever today. Alice Randall, professor of African-American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt University, expresses that, “’To Kill a Mockingbird’ is so important even today – it explains to readers who don’t understand it why black people are afraid of the criminal justice system, because we have not gotten, historically, justice in that system. And Harper Lee was the first person to tell that to the largest group of Americans – 30 million strong, who’ve been her readers – in the most polite and quiet way that many of them were willing to listen to.”
The significance of Lee’s words and her characters will continue to live on, long after her death. She inexorably shifted discourse surrounding race relations, and the core of what she conveyed still touches and affects thousands of readers today.