Harper Lee

by John Boland

Much has been made of the fact that Harper Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird, which was first published fifty years ago tomorrow, but she’s not the literary world’s only one-hit wonder.

To name just a few of the more famous, there are Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and – closer to Harper Lee’s homeplace – Margaret  Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, not to mention such other American novels as James Agee’s A Death in the Family and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

Then there are the authors who wrote a number of novels but are fated to be known for only one – Ivan Goncharov for Oblomov, George Gissing for New Grub Street, Ford Madox Ford for The Good Soldier, Ralph Ellison for Invisible Man, Malcolm Lowry for Under the Volcano and JP Donleavy for The Ginger Man. These are all classics and all, too, that most readers know of their respective authors.

So Harper Lee’s literary reticence is only unusual in an age which demands that when an author writes a book that’s well received he or she must promptly follow it with another and then with another again, as if to prove that  the first one wasn’t a fluke.

Well, if that’s the verdict on To Kill a Mockingbird, it was certainly a beautiful fluke and one that’s enshrined itself in the affections of readers as no other American novel, aside from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, has managed.

There’ll always be dissenters, though, and in the Wall Street Journal columnist Allen Barra dismisses it as “a sugar-coated myth of Alabama’s past” and as “sadly dated” in its “bloodless liberal humanism.”

Having just re-read To Kill a Mockingbird in honour of its anniversary, I understand what the critic is saying, but the book remains for me a quiet, wise and lyrical masterpiece.

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