Consciously or otherwise, as a younger nation, we have always been driven to have our literary works be as influential as those of Mother England; to have subject matter with the gravitas of the Russians; to have the technical and artistic merits of the French and Germans — to create The Great American Novel.
Our search began with the heroism of Fenimore Cooper, and evolved with the endearing humanity of Mark Twain. Our existential torment was lain bare by Herman Melville. We demanded justice with Jack London and Ralph Ellison. We added moral dimensions and clarity with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Toni Morrison. We turned to Harlem to amplify the unheard voices of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. We told the cautionary tales with Ray Bradbury and Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. We took slow-rolling, technical journeys of nostalgia and depth with William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell. We probed the ambiguous and created ciphers with F. Scott Fitzgerald. We picked at the scabs of our national conscience through the gritty realism of Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, S. E. Hinton, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck. We showed the nightmares lurking just below the surface with the southern gothic of Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote. And we haved delved the darker roads with Ken Kesey and Cormac McCarthy.
And, in many ways, from many different eras, each and every one of these authors has penned a Great American Novel.
But, only one novel can be and is the Great American Novel: Harper Lee’s immortal 1960 Nobel-winning To Kill a Mockingbird.
Look at that list above again — every dimension, every characteristic that made those authors and their works stand out, is also present in Lee’s classic. With a timeless intersection of class and race, of crime and punishment, hearth and home, social commentary, justice, loss, and lost innocence, Mockingbird may be the most widely read book in America, outside of the Bible.
But, what makes it the great one?
One of my favorite contemporary authors, John Scalzi, writing in the Los Angeles Times (2016), was able to distill it far better than I:
The Great American Novel is a moving target and the space is filled by a novel that in any particular time best fulfills three main criteria:
Ubiquity: It has to be a novel that a relatively large number of Americans have read, and that a large proportion of those who haven’t read it know about in other ways (for example, by a popular filmed adaptation).
Notability: There has to be a general agreement that the novel is significant—it has literary quality and/or is part of the cultural landscape in a way that’s unquestionable (even if critically assailable).
Morality: It needs to address some unique aspect of the American experience, usually either our faults or our aspirations as a nation, with recognizable moral force (not to be confused with a happy ending).
Which is why, right now, the Great American Novel is To Kill a Mockingbird.
And you know what? He’s right.
But, its impact goes beyond that. Growing up in Alabama, and with Mockingbird a cliff notes of Monroeville, its stories aren’t fever dreams or exaggerations. We knew all of those characters. The little girl running wild with the boys. The creepy guy. The family from the wrong part of town. The voice in the wilderness. Those weren’t characters — they were our neighbors, our family, even us.
And its moral — one that goes well beyond the simple takeaways of race — is one that can resonate with anyone: be a little better, be more decent, open our ears as well as our eyes, look for the truth and speak it, even if what we find leads to unpleasant conclusions about the facts and ourselves.
That manner of deeply personal story can be told about everyone, but it cannot be told by just anyone.
I’m going to close with a personal note here too. The lessons of Mockingbird are probably nowhere as profound as they are within the legal profession — who we are, what we want to be, what society thinks a lawyer should do and how they should behave.
There are few attorneys alive today that didn’t enter that first day of class wanting to do the right thing (howsoever defined), who didn’t want to fight like Atticus, who didn’t respect his keen intellect, his ability to move between and connect with folks from all walks of life. His relentless search for justice, even when it sat uneasy with the law. His ability to calm the storm and tell the difficult stories to those who don’t necessarily want to hear them.
As a folk myth, Atticus Finch is powerful enough. But as a professional role model, one that still serves as the cultural touchstone of a good attorney and an even better man? You could do far worse, no matter how impossibly high he set the bar.
No other novel has had that kind of impact on daily American life, and I doubt that another ever will or could.
Is Mockingbird the greatest American novel?
This poll is closed
It could be; there is a lot of competition
I’ve actually never read it or don’t remember it, but Gregory Peck was great in the movie.