Some authors are so prolific they are said to have a canon.
Until this week, it was thought that Harper Lee wrote just one book. But it was a cannon.
Her seminal novel about racial injustice, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was published in 1960. Since then it’s been translated into 40 languages and has sold more than 40 million copies. The 1962 cinematic adaptation is one of the relatively few films to do justice to classic literature.
The lasting power of “To Kill a Mockingbird” made many wish she would publish again. To the shock of the literary (and indeed, wider) world, she will — 55 years later — with a “new” novel that will be published this July. “Go Set a Watchman,” which Lee thought was lost, was found attached to an original “Mockingbird” manuscript. Featuring some of the same characters and themes of Lee’s classic, “Go Set a Watchman” is in some ways a sequel, since the story takes place 20 years later. But from a writing perspective it’s a prequel, since it was written before “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Lee’s singular success is an accomplishment equaled by few other authors — or anyone in any field, for that matter. “One-hit wonders” in music may score a hit, but it’s not their only recording. In sports, it would be like an unknown rookie skating a shift in the NHL, scoring the winning goal in the Stanley Cup Finals, only to never play — let alone rarely speak about the feat — again.
The stunning success of “To Kill a Mockingbird” may actually have been one of the reasons why, said MJ Fitzgerald, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s English Department. “I think that starting even in the 50s, and certainly continuing now, there was such pressure for writers to be public figures that I really think that kind of skews the writing process very deeply,” said Fitzgerald, who writes fiction and teaches creative writing and literature.
Fitzgerald added that some of Lee’s cohorts, like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, became lasting literary sensations even though they may have realized that their later works might not be as well received as their breakthrough novels. Others, like J.D. Salinger, became good at playing “the game” of hiding. Lee was not interested in playing games and, in fact, she seemed genuinely uncomfortable with fame.
No matter. Her novel spoke volumes at a time when voices rose over racial injustice in America.
Lee’s book was “perched right amid the civil rights movement and it’s linked up with it indelibly,” said John S. Wright, professor of African-American studies and African studies and English at the University of Minnesota. “It was a voice of a white woman writer from the South coming to terms with her own part of the country’s enduring shame and legacy, and with issues that the country as a whole was trying to wrestle with at the time.”
Wright added that “To Kill a Mockingbird” was well-read by civil rights leaders, and for many white readers it served as a “back story for what was happening in the ’50s and early ’60s in this country.”
What was happening was shown in shocking news coverage. Those optics, as well as Lee’s literary classic, were contributing factors to the nation’s change on civil rights. This makes the back story of “To Kill a Mockingbird” even more compelling — not only is it rare that an author’s sole novel was so successful, it’s remarkable that one book had a hand in changing so many hearts and minds.
One reason may be “Mockingbird’s” unique narrative. It starts out as a “gothic Southern nightmare,” Wright said, but then pivots toward more universal themes, seen through a child’s eyes.
“Like ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ which on one hand is dressed in the wrappings of a child’s tale but deals with deep moral issues, American audiences for a long time have preferred to deal with some of the most troubling moral and political issues through fictions rendered and filtered through the eyes of a child.”
The child, Scout, is an enduring, endearing character. But just as powerful is the portrayal of Atticus Finch, her father, whose quiet courage is a true-north in the polarized South of the 1930s. His timeless paternal example for Scout and her brother Jem, as well as for kid readers, undoubtedly influenced many adults determining social outcomes, too.
The novel “had a great influence in helping us reflect on the questions of honor and moral justice and the language of values passed on from one generation to another,” said Wright.
And just as Atticus taught these values to the next generation, so too has “To Kill a Mockingbird” over several generations.
Maybe that’s another reason for Harper Lee’s reticence. She didn’t have to say much. Her literary cannon shot said it all, nearly perfectly.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.