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On Harper Lee's Enduring Legacy

How the reclusive writer shaped a generation.
Harper Lee in 1962.

Harper Lee in 1962. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

There are some writers who change the course of our history. Jack Kerouac inspired a generation of rovers; George Orwell gave us a vocabulary for a new world; and legend has it that, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

One such writer was Harper Lee, the reclusive, witty writer whose To Kill a Mockingbird became part of our national conscience. Today she passed away at the age of 89.

With the release last year of Go Set a Watchman, Max Ufberg explored her enduring legacy for Pacific Standard:

It probably goes without saying that old books can obviously impact new writers. In that sense, To Kill a Mockingbird really stands out. Using Google's Ngram Viewer, which plots the frequency of use of any word or phrase—in this case, a book title—over time, it's easy to see just how significant To Kill a Mockingbird has been. For comparison's sake, look at four of the other well-known literary classics from that decade:

It's just one measurement, sure, but the results are clear: To Kill a Mockingbird has displayed extraordinary staying power in our culture.

A 2012 study, which mathematically assesses the stylistic influence of authors over future literature, "gives quantitative support to the notion of a literary 'style of a time,'" according to the researchers, "with a strong trend toward increasingly contemporaneous stylistic influence." Put simply: A good writer can change not just his or her peers' writing style, but also that of future generations. Looking at this empirical evidence next to the Google Ngram chart, Harper Lee's significance is not exactly a tough sell.

To Kill a Mockingbird was released at the height of the Civil Right's era. While the plot's treatment of African Americans remains a controversial issue, the book did do quite a bit to combat prejudice. Fine offers up an interesting thought experiment: "Suppose Harper Lee didn't publish To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, and it sat around and was first published in 1990. What would its impact have been?" Lee has become part of a larger discussion on civil rights and inequality in the 1960s; she became a cultural icon.

Though she only published two books, one of them decades after it was written, Lee left her mark. It was in the timing.