Books blog: Harper Lee deepened our imaginative and spiritual lives

Harper Lee, who died last week” (AP)

I was debating with an acquaintance the other day what made for a great novel. He thought it meant starting with a powerful idea and then filling it out with characters and plot. I disagreed: what made a novel great was character and place; the ‘theme’ was secondary and a ‘plot’ was optional, though it does help to drive along a narrative. I still think this – especially since last Friday saw the deaths of two celebrated authors, Harper Lee and Umberto Eco, who exemplify my argument.

Here I should say I have never read In the Name of the Rose, Eco’s most famous book, and nothing I have read about it makes me want to. When people discuss it the most they can say is that it is a stimulating/fascinating/gripping medieval mystery thriller, written by a professor of semiotics (a word that few people had heard of until Eco came along, and even fewer understand even now.) Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, is different. It bears out my further contention with the acquaintance referred to above that there is a distinction between a writer and an artist. Some people – mainly writers – will call this a false distinction, but it makes sense to me. Writers use their skills, which are sometimes considerable, merely to practise their craft; artists start out with a vision which then, according to their gifts, they flesh out, in this case in works of fiction.

I am not talking about a spiritual vision obviously, though there is a spiritual quality to a work of art. I am describing an author who has a way of looking at people and life from a humane, generous and perceptive standpoint and who feels compelled to describe the diversity of the persons populating his imagination. It is this largeness of spirit which, allied to a capacity to breathe life into an imaginary character and an imaginary society, makes for a classic novel. It is for this reason that people will remember Dorothea in Middlemarch, Pierre in War and Peace and David Copperfield, with all the heartfelt moral circumstances of their lives, long after the “hero” of Eco’s novel will have been dismissed as a literary construct.

Even though she only wrote one book (the recently published Go Set A Watchman was an earlier draft of To Kill A Mockingbird), Harper Lee occupies a modest but permanent place in the pantheon of artists; that is why her book has been reprinted millions of times and will go on selling. People might sneer that a popular school text, read by 12-year-olds, hardly justifies inclusion among the classics. I would respond that it is just as much a classic as Pride and Prejudice, also read and enjoyed by 12-year-olds. Indeed, when I read that that Lee’s favourite author was Jane Austen, whom she described as “writing, cameo-like in that little corner of the world of hers and making it universal”, I realised that Austen would have been the inspiration behind her own decision to stage her novel and its characters in “Maycomb”, the fictionalised setting for Monroeville in Alabama, where Lee spent almost all her life.

Like Austen’s understanding of provincial society in early 19th-century England, Lee knew her own small world – that of the American South – intimately. Her characters, like Austen’s, were the people she knew, with all their human flaws and failings, and also their nobility. The issues she raises – racial prejudice, the stigma of mental illness, the place of women, the importance of a father’s love and so on – were what she saw and experienced in her own life and as a true artist, she gave shape to them.

The surprise publication of Go Set a Watchman last year and the excitement that accompanied it, gave us a glimpse of the creative process at work, showing how Lee was helped by an excellent editor in Tay Hohoff, but it does not detract from Lee’s achievement, any more than knowing that Ezra Pound persuaded TS Eliot to cut out many lines from his great poem detracts from The Waste Land as we know it.

Critics of Lee’s novel suggest that it sentimentalised the vicious black-white divide in US society and made Americans, wrongly, feel good about themselves in its idealised portrait of Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defended an African American in a courthouse filled with racists. But there is nothing sentimental in the novel, from its portrait of Mrs Dubose and her secret drug addiction, the alcoholism of Mr Dolphus Raymond, to the sequestered life of Boo Radley, the misfit and recluse.

The point of art is to deepen and broaden the reader’s own imaginative and spiritual life. When, for example, Finch tells his son Jem, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do. Mrs Dubose won…She was the bravest person I ever knew”, our own capacity for sympathy and understanding has been enlarged. Do Eco’s novels do this? I rest my case.