The literary world is mourning tonight the death of one of its most illustrious yet enigmatic authors. It is a sadness that will be shared by lovers of good literature everywhere.
Nelle Harper Lee was a literary phenomenon. For a novelist whose body of published work consisted -until last year – of only one book, she enjoyed a fame and an influence far beyond her native Alabama. Her 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, has sold around 40 million copies and has been translated into multiple languages. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and elevated Harper Lee almost to an institution.
What is it about Mockingbird that made it one of the most read (one assumes) and most loved novels of last century, and of this? Conceived and executed during a period of extreme racial tension and discrimination, it struck a chord as representing a voice of reason when so many other voices were spewing violence and hatred in the southern states of North America and elsewhere.
Mockingbird strikes a similar chord today among reasonable people of all races and beliefs in the face of a new, but not dissimilar extremism – the threat from religious fanatics who spout hatred of a different colour [– the choice of the word is deliberate –].
Lee’s only other novel, Go Set A Watchman, published last year – though written first – caused a storm of controversy among readers and critics because her protagonist Atticus Finch turned out to be more human than the idealistic crusader of Mockingbird.
Would Watchman have become the greater novel had Lee rewritten and edited that version of her story during the 1960s? This reader for one thinks so, but of course we shall never know.
Literature needs more novelists of the calibre of Harper Lee, novelists who write the world and its inhabitants as they are, warts and all. She will be greatly missed.