One of the most influential novels of the 20th century is without a doubt To Kill A Mockingbird, the infamous Pulitzer Prize winning novel that turned literature across the world on its head. A labour of intense love, the late great Harper Lee spent two and half years conceiving and refining the novel into its pristine form; her years of sacrifice came to fruition when the novel was published on July 11th, 1960. Speaking against the tide, Lee captured the injustice and disgust of the American world in her novel, preaching universal truths about society that still ring true to this day.
As an ardent writer from the beginning, Lee often expressed her disagreement in the racial injustice that occurred in the Southern states through her short stories and essays during her college years. She spoke out in a time when such opinions were simply irrelevant to the ‘White America’ that perpetuated her society. Her strong-willed nature against the machine of ignorance ultimately produced To Kill A Mockingbird; Lee had left her immortal impression on American literature.
The power of Lee’s voice added to the emergence of the civil rights movement in America, with her writing presenting the truth that not all white Americans believed in the barbarity of segregation. The resounding success of To Kill A Mockingbird lay in the ways that Lee tackled gender, class, growing-up and race in her iconic child’s-eye narration. Though the novel was an instant success in the 60s, its themes are still evident in American society today.
Alice Randall, Professor of African-American & diaspora studies, so eloquently puts it:
[To Kill A Mockingbird] is an elemental book and I think precisely because it dares speaks the truth that the problem in the South is not the problem with black people, it’s the problem with white people, and it’s coming from a white author’s perspective.
Lee’s character, Tom Robinson, was loosely-based on innocent black men that had been killed due to racial injustice – innocents like Emmett Till and the Scottsboro Boys.
A staple of many high school reading lists, To Kill A Mockingbird preaches as many truths now as it did fifty years ago. The injustice towards black citizens, the state of the lower social classes and the ever-strong glass ceiling above women are all tropes of society that Lee encountered and dealt with as she channeled all her hatred of them into the morally-superior Scout. The feisty tomboy that Lee based upon her own childhood experiences speaks to us all, invigorating within us a sense of decency and conduct that reflects a better society, a welcoming society.
Lee fought for To Kill A Mockingbird in more ways than one. The controversy of the topics that she addressed meant that many Southern states did not want their youth reading literature which they felt was ‘immoral’ due to the fact that it spoke so freely of the problems within society; that didn’t dismay her and only served her with more reason to challenge the arrogance of society. Lee believed in education and expression, that ignorance to the suffering of others could no longer exist if America wanted to flourish.
Her numerous awards and honours cannot fully define just how influential Harper Lee has been in instilling an ideal American thought into the minds of children and adults everywhere. Whether this novel came into your life when you were 15 (as it did for me) or 55, the beliefs that Lee held in her prose stand the test of time for the very reason that they are, and will always be, relevant.