Very few novelists achieve the lasting fame that Harper Lee managed, and even fewer manage it off the back of just 300 pages of published work. To Kill a Mockingbird became one of those rare books that for at least one generation of American readers was a rite of passage, much loved yet still widely respected as a serious work of fiction -- even if it has been largely ignored by academic critics.
It tells a fairly radical story for 1960 (when it was published), offering an honest picture of race relations in the American South through the eyes of a young female protagonist at a time before the Civil Rights acts ended segregation. It's also notable for dealing with the contentious issue of institutional and legal complicity in the ongoing violence towards black Americans, albeit with a white lawyer as its hero.
The shady 'rediscovery' of Mockingbird's early draft Go Set a Watchman last year revitalised interest in Lee and the book, and became another bestseller, but it will only ever be a late footnote to the first novel. Harper Lee only managed to write one novel in her long life, but one was enough.
Mark Storey, Assistant Professor of American Literature
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