Boyd Tonkin: Mystique of the perfect story

Click to follow
The Independent Online

You can't simply lay it at the feet of Gregory Peck, whose Oscar-winning role as the anti-racist lawyer Atticus Finch embodies the true hero for millions. Neither can you blame the syllabus-fixers who have drilled Harper Lee's sole novel into young minds for 40 years. The enduring appeal of her child's-eye tale of pride and prejudice in small-town Alabama of the mid-1930s has deeper roots than the schoolroom or cinema could plant.

You can't simply lay it at the feet of Gregory Peck, whose Oscar-winning role as the anti-racist lawyer Atticus Finch embodies the true hero for millions. Neither can you blame the syllabus-fixers who have drilled Harper Lee's sole novel into young minds for 40 years. The enduring appeal of her child's-eye tale of pride and prejudice in small-town Alabama of the mid-1930s has deeper roots than the schoolroom or cinema could plant.

Within a year of its appearance in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird had sold more than two million copies and won the Pulitzer Prize. It became a fixture of the American cultural landscape. This was the book that partnered the early, hopeful days of John F Kennedy's presidency with a flawless fable of justice and enlightenment, one that told of terrors allayed and malice overcome not by scary revolutionary means but by a good man standing up for the truth. It spoke to a nation that prefers to accept change as the conservative defence of its core values against cruelty and corruption. The novel also spoke to a wider world, enchanted by the power of archetypal figures and events.

Under the local wars over race and class lie the universal shapes of the child's slow maturing and the lonely quest for truth and justice. And it's intermittently a very funny novel too, packed with the yarn-spinning drollery of the rural South - one part of her heritage Lee did adore.

Still adores, one should add. For Lee's 45-year silence, in New York and at her childhood home in Monroeville, Alabama, has helped turn a seminal classic for others into a terminal classic for its maker. In the near-total absence of interviews, articles or other explanations, one can only guess at the paralysing pressure of being informed day after day, year after year, that your first and only novel has defined your epoch and changed your country.

After all, Lee did not grow mute straight away. In a rare 1964 interview, she told of her ambition to become "the Jane Austen of south Alabama". It never happened. But she had famously accompanied Truman Capote to Kansas to do the research behind his "non-fiction novel", In Cold Blood. One school of literary gossip says she wrote In Cold Blood. Another says that he wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Neither is correct, but Lee did continue to think of herself as a writer among writers for a time.

Her own acknowledged perfectionism ("I see a great deal of sloppiness and I deplore it," she said of her fellow authors in that interview) no doubt intensified the sound of her silence. Yet this legendary one-hit wonder has also, and unwittingly, fed a wider kind of mystique and superstition. The United States, and now the world that mimics it, is in love with the notion of the perfect, unrepeatable performance. A culture that cherishes one-shot salvation would never really want a follow-up.

Comments