Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, in May 1961.

Photographer: Donald Uhrbrock/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Why 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Endures

Sam Tanenhaus, the author of “The Death of Conservatism” and “Whittaker Chambers,” is working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. He was editor of the New York Times Book Review from 2004 to 2013.
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Until a week or so ago, Harper Lee was the model of literary reticence. In the 55 years since the publication of her “To Kill a Mockingbird,” she had settled into silence, firmly resisting the pleas of her many admirers for a second book.

All that changed when her publisher, News Corp.'s Harper Collins, said it would publish a new novel by Lee in July in a colossal first printing of 2 million. The number could increase. Ten days after the announcement, the book, titled “Go Set a Watchman,” was still No. 1 on the Amazon list, ahead of both “American Sniper” and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Lee, who is now 88, and her estate and her publisher are all about to get much richer.

Not that she needs the money or the recognition. In publishing terms, Lee is a rare phenomenon -- a one-hit wonder whose fame and success have continued to grow, despite changes in literary fashion. Even now, without the benefit of flashy marketing or publicity campaigns, “To Kill a Mockingbird” sells as many as 1 million copies a year -- holding its own against each season’s biggest new releases and yielding its author an annual royalty of an estimated $1.7 million. It has been translated into more than 40 languages. In Britain, one survey ranked “To Kill a Mockingbird” 65th among all-time best-sellers there, just ahead of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

In the U.S., several generations of students have been raised on the moral fable of Atticus Finch, the widowed Southern lawyer, and his daughter, Scout, who together combat racial injustice in an Alabama town during the Great Depression.

Many hoped the new book would be a departure or even a sequel. But after the initial excitement, “Go Set a Watchman” appears to be a dusted-off, preliminary version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” featuring the same main characters, only set 20 years later.

And at a time when the movie “Selma” has kindled a debate about the roles of whites and blacks in the civil rights movement -- and their depiction on screen -- Lee's 1960 classic is facing fresh scrutiny as well. 

“It has been under attack for years by some serious critics for being simplistic and problematic in a privileged-white-lady-solves-the-race-issue kind of way,” Jessa Crispin, a literary journalist, wrote in the New York Times.

True, a sequel, offered as a new work, may call attention to Lee’s old-fashioned if good-hearted ideas about racial harmony -- especially if in the new book Atticus seems as naïve in the face of racial hatred as he does in the first. (“Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand,” he says at one point.)

But, for all the merits of the latest criticism of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” its appeal never rested on its realistic picture of Southern life. It was anachronistic even in its day (one reason, perhaps, that Lee set the action much earlier). There were sit-ins in Nashville and in Greensboro, N.C., in February 1960, five months before “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published. Within a year the Freedom Rides had challenged Lee’s sorting of humanity into simple categories -- the high-minded Finches and the humble, hard-working African-Americans who look to them for protection, both groups united against the “ignorant, trashy people” who represent the true danger to the community.

There was skepticism on other grounds too. Lee wrote at a time when Southern women were some of the most forceful voices in American fiction: Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers as well as Flannery O’Connor, whose novel “The Violent Bear It Away” was published the same year as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and is also set in the rural South.

Unlike O’Connor, whose prose is radiant with religious imagery and philosophical questioning, Lee could sound lazy. Her sentences sometimes “had a processed, homogenized, impersonal flatness,” wrote Frank H. Lyell in the New York Times in July 1960. O’Connor‘s own verdict of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was succinct: “It's a wonderful children's book.”

Given all this, the surprise is that Lee's book, which won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, continues to occupy the exalted place it does. In 2001, when Chicago educators started a citywide reading campaign, the book they chose was “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Thousands of copies were placed in books and libraries. “It’s exciting partly because this book deals with important themes like civil rights and social justice, but it’s also about creating a culture of reading,” Mary Dempsey, Chicago's library commissioner, said.

That last point helps explain the novel's enduring appeal. It may not be serious literature, but its characters are intensely bookish. In the opening chapter, Scout and her older brother Jem meet their precocious neighbor Dill (who was inspired by Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote):

“I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said. “I can read.”

“So what?” I said.

“I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin' I can do it...”

“How old are you,” asked Jem, “four-and-a-half?”

“Goin’ on seven.”

“Shoot no wonder, then,” said Jem, jerking his thumb at me. “Scout yonder’s been readin’ ever since she was born, and she ain’t even started to school yet.”

In the South of Lee’s time, reading was a hallowed activity, because so many were unable to do it. Illiteracy was rampant, among whites as well as blacks, and kept many mired in poverty. “For a limited few, both black and white, the ability to read a Bible, a newspaper, a road sign or to write one's name marked major triumphs,” according to a report on the efforts of the Southern Literacy Campaign, which began in 1910 and ended in 1935, when “To Kill a Mockingbird” takes place. In a courtroom scene, Atticus asks a hostile white witness if he might be able to write his name. “I most positively will,” he replies. “How do you think I sign my relief checks?”

The novel’s “good” characters, meanwhile, glean almost all their wisdom from books of any kind, including Blackstone’s “Commentaries,” which the Finches’ African-American maid, Calpurnia, uses as reading primers for her son. “They were the only books I had,” she explains to Jem. “Your grandaddy said Mr. Blackstone wrote fine English.”

Learning fine English will make her son not only smarter and wiser but also, Calpurnia implies, better. Like librarians and language-arts teachers, Lee divides the world into two camps, readers and nonreaders, and she faithfully reproduces the moral atmosphere of the progressive classroom. 

Over time, even as literary rates improved, Lee’s theology of reading still had meaning. In the 1980s, for instance, the obstacle was no longer the lack of schooling, but the advent of the video age, with its seductive screens and captivating visuals. 

In an influential report, “Becoming a Nation of Readers,” prepared by the Commission on Reading and published in 1985, educators concluded that schools alone couldn’t address the problem. “The parent and the home environment teach the child his or her first lessons and they are the first teacher for reading too.”

The Finches, constantly slipping away to read, provided the ideal of such a family. The novel also offers a critique of unimaginative teaching methods. “The second grade was as bad as the first, only worse -- they still flashed cards at you and wouldn’t let you read or write,” Scout reports.

The crucial word is “let.” Reading and writing for Scout mean freedom and pleasure. This may explain why in 1988, long after its subject matter had become dated, “To Kill a Mockingbird" was being taught “in 74 percent of the nation’s public schools,” as Charles J. Shields writes in his biography of Lee. Shields, himself a teacher in a school outside Chicago, found that the book opened the minds of his students. “In-class discussions of the novel tend to be lively, and assigned essays are weighty with insights and opinions,” he notes. “It’s a very rich text to teach.”

Whatever its shortcomings, “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains a gateway to literature, to the joys of bookishness. “Go Set a Watchman” may not achieve the same result, but the title alone is typical of Harper Lee. It comes from the Book of Isaiah -- the King James version, needless to say.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Sam Tanenhaus at tanenhaus.lit@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net