Was Harper Lee Our Most Influential Novelist?

For the millions of readers who grew up with Scout and Atticus, the people in To Kill a Mockingbird feel like kin. But the spell this author cast was far more profound.

It’s a little weird to call an author beloved. Most readers don’t get that cozy with writers, even their favorites. You can respect authors. Heck, you can be crazy about them. But beloved? Not so much.

Then there was Harper Lee. The weird thing in her case would be to call her anything else.

If you wanted to split hairs, you could say it was her novel To Kill a Mockingbird that is beloved. You could point out that we never knew much about Lee, who died Friday at 89 in Monroeville, the little Alabama town that she immortalized as the fictional Maycomb.

There is no doubt that Mockingbird is beloved. It is also a book so identified with its author that it is almost impossible to separate the two. Not that the author ever encouraged such a thought. Lee was a very private woman who never bought into the idea that if people embraced your book, then you owed them a piece of yourself as well. She gave the world To Kill a Mockingbird and plainly in her mind, that was enough.

With very few exceptions, the readers who loved the novel respected her decision. How could you do otherwise? Here was a book that, among other things, quietly but emphatically defended a recluse’s right to be a recluse.

So the world left her alone. Not that that stopped any of us from thinking that we knew her somehow. In the minds of her many readers, To Kill a Mockingbird was not just a novel, and Lee was not just any author. She was family.

How else could you see her? She had written indelibly of her childhood, and you didn’t have to grow up in the South or during the Depression to relate to what she described, because what she wrote about childhood—about the little betrayals and tiny backyard victories, about how boredom was imagination’s conjoined twin—was roughly true of any childhood anywhere.

Yes, it was a slightly idealized picture of childhood—more the childhood you wanted than the one you had—but by the time you figured that out, the book had become part of your mental furniture. A 15-year-old reader falls in love with Mockingbird and thinks it’s the greatest novel ever written. The same reader at 30 might well hold a more equivocal view of the book, but it was still impossible to look at it objectively. It was a part of you, and looking at it with a critic’s cold eye would be something like reviewing your elbow.

Authors whose books are embraced by children and teenagers are lucky, at least in this country, because we are not a nation of great readers, and most of what reading we do is done in childhood. So we wind up more familiar with Dr. Seuss than Don DeLillo. The authors we encounter at the outset—the good ones—shape our ideas of what storytelling is, what we can expect of a novel, what fiction can and cannot do.

With that in mind, is it worth asking, was Harper Lee the most influential writer of her time?

Quite possibly, since for several decades it is hard, if not impossible, to avoid To Kill a Mockingbird when you make your way through the American school system. (This is the one factor working against the novel, since one of the singular traits of adolescence is the kneejerk willingness to despise anything we are required to read, listen to, look at, or learn.) It is one of the first adult novels we read, and so it has an outsized ability to define fiction for us ever after: This is what a novel looks like, this is how it works.

Frankly, we could do a lot worse. It is fashionable of late to complain about the deficiencies of Mockingbird. I’ve done some of that myself. But ultimately it’s a very good book. Maybe we would think it was a greater book if it were somehow more complicated and nuanced. Because, yes, the part of the plot that concerns race has dated since the book was written. Yes, there is still racism, and people are still being falsely accused. But somehow Mockingbird’s take on all this is a mite pat.

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It’s also fatalistic, but that to me is its saving grace—it’s what makes it better than just a good book. Atticus Finch loses in court, and Tom Robinson dies. The forces of darkness prevail. (Bob Ewell also dies at the end, with a butcher knife between his ribs, but that’s just poetic justice, not real justice.) Of course it’s important, the book implies, that in the face of defeat we dust ourselves off and start all over again, but it also teaches us that we should not expect to succeed just because we’re on the side of the angels, or think we are.

This is not a lesson much encountered by teenagers, but I’d guess it’s what, more than almost anything else, endears the book to them, even if the message is just received subliminally. Unless you’re one of the very lucky ones in middle school or high school, you spend a lot of your time losing, or feeling like a loser. It just comes with the territory. And then here comes this novel whose hero is this righteous, almost perfect dude. And he loses in court. And his client dies in prison.

That’s not a situation we encounter much in school, or anywhere. How often does the hero lose on TV or in the movies? Even in the toughest books deemed OK for young eyes, goodness usually finds a way to win out. Even, say, in Huckleberry Finn, which is in many ways a far darker book than Mockingbird, Jim the slave does escape to freedom.

As enamored as I was of Mockingbird when I was around 13 years old, when it was My Favorite Novel and possibly The Greatest Novel of All Time, it took me a long time to reconcile myself to the darkness of that ending. I didn’t want the book to end the way it did (similarly, I remember reading the last page of The Grapes of Wrath and thinking that pages were missing—it took me another forever to understand that no ending was that book’s ending). With time, I reconciled myself to the fact that Atticus Finch loses and that life is often unfair and out of balance. And seeing that, I was halfway home to one of the light-bulb moments of my literary life: that a story doesn’t have to end happily to be good, but it does have to end satisfactorily.

So while I will never argue that To Kill a Mockingbird is the greatest novel of my lifetime, I would argue that Harper Lee had more influence than any other novelist on my ideas of what fiction can do and how it can infiltrate one’s life. And I’ll wager that millions of people feel the same way.