When Harper Lee passed away last Friday, the world lost the author of one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century. Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird, is perhaps best described as iconic. In a novel that tells a coming of age story while illustrating the racial injustices of 1930s southern society, Lee crafts some of the most memorable and vibrant characters in all of literature: Scout, the stubborn tomboy; Atticus Finch, the quiet, dignified lawyer; and the mysterious Boo Radley. As the most widely read book in high school curricula across the country, the novel still maintains a far-reaching influence today.
The political impact of To Kill a Mockingbird on the civil rights movement cannot be understated. Published in 1960, in the wake of the Emmett Till murder and the Montgomery bus boycotts, the novel had immediate success and heightened public scrutiny on the shameful institutions of racism and segregation. Lee’s work is an enduring testament of the potential books have to challenge ways of thinking and change societal norms.
Yet the scope of the novel encompassed more than just race. The character of Scout, which Lee based on her childhood self, defies the constraints of gender roles, preferring overalls to dresses and fistfights to dollhouses. In her boldness and independence, Scout is an early feminist heroine. Lee also uses her detailed descriptions of Maycomb County to comment on class, exploring how genetics and family history play a perceived role in separating the “white trash” from the “Southern ladies and gentlemen.”
The most powerful message that To Kill a Mockingbird imparts on us is found within its intimate analysis of humanity, replete with all its flaws. Even as Atticus serves as a model of human decency, the tragic end of Tom Robinson’s trial and its aftermath reveal the ugly reverse side of the coin. As easy it is to point and denounce the overt racism of the citizens of Maycomb from the 21st century perspective, this human ugliness persists.
Atticus tells Scout it is a sin to kill a mockingbird due to the fact that all they do is sing; they don’t do anything to hurt others. In the novel, Tom Robinson is the innocent mockingbird, the victim of racial prejudice. But over half a century later, mockingbirds are still being killed. What would Atticus Finch have to say about the murder of Trayvon Martin, or Eric Garner, or Freddie Gray, or Tamir Rice? If recent events tell us anything, it is that we still have a lot to learn from a work that will endure as one of the great American novels.