America is too diverse and varied a country for any single piece of art to define it as a whole. The ruggedness of the Old West is just as iconically “American” as the glamour of Manhattan or the energy of Motown. No country is a monolith, but America emphatically isn’t, so none of our art can hope to capture it all. When The A.V. Club debated what the quintessential American rock band was, answers ranged from The Pixies to The Jackson Five to The Beach Boys. The stories of all those bands are different, as are their styles and genres, but they all can reasonably claim to represent the American experience—their version of it, at least.
Nonetheless, if you had to pick a book that distilled America to its essence, a narrative synthesized out of our shared history, ideals, aspirations, and sins, it’s hard to think of a more appropriate choice than To Kill A Mockingbird, whose author Harper Lee just died at the age of 89. More than any other work of literature, Mockingbird sits in the intersection of how Americans like to view ourselves and who we actually are. Its themes are the themes of our history, its conclusions the results of the American experiment. More than 50 years after its publication, and with some 80 years passed since the long summer it describes, there is nothing about Mockingbird’s view of America that feels dated or a relic of a bygone era. If America is the patient, Mockingbird’s diagnosis of our condition remains accurate.
To arrive at Mockingbird, we should consider what qualities the quintessential book of America should have (beyond the quality of the prose, though Mockingbird is a masterpiece of tone and lyricism). It has always felt fitting that it should be a child’s story, perhaps because America is a comparatively young country relative to other global powers. Our prided traits of idealism and resilience seem like more youthful qualities than the stateliness and honor embodied by the Old World, and an older or more mature lead doesn’t feel like the most appropriate fictional representative. Even the older icons of American literature, like Jay Gatsby, are essentially childlike—naive or young at heart.
A child’s story is appropriate because America is a young country still unsure about its place in the world, and that should be reflected in any book that can be said to be defining. Before Scout, the spunky heroine at the center of Mockingbird, there was Holden Caulfield, and before him the ruthless coming-of-age of Scarlett O’Hara and the by-your-bootstrap journeys of Horatio Alger’s various protagonists, going all the way back to Twain’s Huck Finn and a Melville lad we call Ishmael. Scout has been compelling to millions of readers is because she is us—her story is a process of learning how the world works and not being happy about it, while not being resigned to the way things are.
It also seems inevitable that “America’s book” would engage with the subject of race. It is the core issue of American history, from the original sins of slavery and the genocide of native tribes to our misguided pride in the melting pot. The phrase on the national seal—”e pluribus unum,” meaning “out of many, one”—is both our highest aspiration and a standard we have frequently failed to meet. (This fractious and divisive primary campaign has been a steady drumbeat of reminders on that front.) It’s difficult to see any book as our standard-bearer that doesn’t grapple with the gap between this ideal and the reality of our history. (Which is what disqualifies The Great Gatsby, although the issues it deals with are key—class and the attainability of the American dream—but the homogeneity of the characters doesn’t mirror the country.)
Mockingbird is mired on both sides of this issue—the real and the ideal. In Atticus Finch—Scout’s sainted father, a lawyer who agrees to defend a black man falsely accused of rape—Lee created the embodiment of American goodness. Atticus, more than any other character in our literature, is the aspirational figure, our moral north star; his scenes offer warmth, as though being in his “presence” was somehow healing. This also goes for Gregory Peck’s magnificent performance in Robert Mulligan’s film adaptation, perhaps the best movie ever made from a great book. This is likely why the reaction to Go Set A Watchman was so personal; it wasn’t just a beloved character being changed, but an attack on our moral support system. If Atticus can’t be free from prejudice, what chance do the rest of us have?
As readers of Mockingbird know, Atticus’ idealism proves insufficient in the novel; his airtight case fails to free his client from the racist instincts of the jury, just as the best efforts of his closest real-life equivalents (Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King) made progress but failed to achieve equality. The ending is what separates Mockingbird from Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, another favorite candidate for a country-defining work. That book, magnificent though it is, ends on a more cleanly happy note, as Jim is freed from slavery and justice is more or less served. Huck’s arc toward tolerance is one of the most important in American literature, but its denouement has always felt insufficiently easy.
Mockingbird offers no such comfort, as it depicts the injustice of racism and the harm of prejudice but offers no solution. If the story’s ending can be considered happy or optimistic, it’s only because Lee finds some sproutings of progress in an otherwise scorched earth: the idea that things will get better with time. Scout and her brother Jem will grow to be more tolerant than the last generation, and the scary “other”—another constant of American history, here embodied by the mysterious Boo Radley—is revealed as a neighbor and not a threat. The divisions of American society will not have disappeared, just as they have not outside of the world of the book, but neither will the hopes for a better future. Atticus, and all he represents, will be with us all night, and he will be with us in the morning.