The New York Times had a pleasing article on Tuesday, providing a small glimpse into the life of a genuinely modest author whose name you know (though it’s possible you didn’t know she was a Southern lady, or anything else about her, including the fact that she is still alive and active). The woman in question is named Nelle Harper Lee, though she dropped the feminine first name for her nom de plume . And the book for which she is famous¯her only book¯is called To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m sure there are a few Americans out there who have never heard of Harper Lee, and never read that book, which has become a staple of the nation’s secondary schooling, North and South. But they are likely to be few and far between.
How is it that a book and author that have been so indisputably influential remain so obscure? As this article makes clear, it’s partly because the author chose to let her book speak for itself, and has for the nearly five decades since the book’s publication quietly but firmly rejected the cult of authorial celebrity. She did not even play the Salinger-like game of being the well-known recluse. She simply refused to become a public person. But the strange obscurity of her book is harder to understand. Leaving aside its literary merits, which are not inconsiderable, it is a book that has made an incalculable difference in American attitudes on the subject of race. It was, and remains, a historical force. I think one could argue that To Kill a Mockingbird did for twentieth-century race relations, or at any rate for white attitudes toward blacks, what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for white attitudes about slavery in the antebellum nineteenth century. And yet it is rarely examined as a work of serious literature, not to mention one whose convicting force changed the moral life of the nation.
And the book’s influence is probably not anywhere near being over. At least, one can hope not. To revisit it again is to reach back and experience the dawning of a sense of interracial good will and hopefulness and possibility that, at times, seems very remote today, even with all that we have achieved as a society in the intervening years. Indeed, read alongside Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities , or Shelby Steele’s trenchant observations about the poisonous effects of "white guilt," the moral world of Mockingbird may seem hopelessly innocent and idealistic, in just the way that Harper Lee’s admirable reticence may seem impossibly ascetic and futile in a publicity-saturated time. Mockingbird could not envision the immense harm that has been wrought in the years since by the cynical exploitation of race as an issue¯not least, the damage done to precisely the willingness of the heart that Mockingbird helped bring about. There is a gauzy and middlebrow sentimentality in the book, and a naïveté about human nature, luxuries we perhaps feel we can no longer afford. We are all too aware of how the righteous hatred of hatred can degenerate into an even more poisonous and manipulable form of hate, precisely because it is insulated from self-examination by its own sense of righteousness. Yet the same criticisms of sentimentality and naivete could be made of Uncle Tom’s Cabin , a book that turns out, a century and a half after it was written, to have been better and more penetrating and more enduring than anyone credited at the time, or even fifty years ago. I suspect that To Kill a Mockingbird will still be read with profit and respect a century and half from now; I’m rather less sanguine about the long-range prospects for the other literary stars of the current canon, which already show signs that they will not age gracefully.
(Click here to email the author about this item. Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and is a member of the editorial board of F IRST T HINGS .)
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