When I heard of your passing, I went to my bookshelves to find my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, to flip through your words, your characters, your gracious writing. I was surprised to find it was absent from the novels. It was nowhere in my shelves. Somehow, I’d forgotten to bring it with me when I moved.
I dearly wish I’d brought it. Long ago, I was one of the many high school freshmen who read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I couldn’t put it down. I returned to it again and again in high school and college, reassessing the meaning each time. Your characters still speak to us in ways we never seem to expect.
Literary canons are uncontrollable, amorphous little creatures regularly consuming or abandoning texts, but your place in the American Canon is, I think, difficult to dispute. You’ve shaped my idea about the novel as a form, and you’ve shaped so many other great writers. You’ve also shaped my idea of how to be an American citizen when it seems that so little has improved over the decades. There is gentleness in your writing, something so absent in today’s literature and today’s America. In Atticus, Jem, and Boo Radley, you gave us a refuge for gentleness.
My bookshelf is incomplete without To Kill a Mockingbird. There is, and always will be, a place on my shelf for you, Harper Lee. You are one of the reasons I am not a complete cynic (as I’m still only three-quarters a cynic).
Rest in peace, Harper Lee.