A salute to Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

We’ve lost two cultural giants this week: American author Harper Lee (1926-2016), and the Italian philosopher, cultural theorist and writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016). Here’s a salute to each with some links to further reading.

Harper Lee

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”

Harper Lee’s literary reputation rests almost completely on one novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Set in mid-1930s Alabama, it uses a court case to illuminate the ingrained racism of the Deep South: black field-hand Tom Robinson is falsely accused of raping a white woman and is defended at trial by attorney Atticus Finch, the father of precocious child-narrator Scout. The novel can be viewed both as a coming-of-age story and a historical novel about the Great Depression, and explores the themes of crime, racism, morality and justice in a way that still feels challenging today. The 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck is a classic.      

Lee was the daughter of a lawyer (on whom the character of Atticus was based), studied law herself, and had an interesting link to the world of crime writing. One of her childhood friends was Truman Capote, and she worked with him in conducting interviews and gathering materials for In Cold Blood (1966), his ground-breaking ‘true crime’ examination of the Clutter family murder case in Kansas.

Further reading:

Italian writer Umberto Eco listens to a question during the presentation of his latest novel "The Cemetery of Prague" in Madrid December 13, 2010. REUTERS/Andrea Comas

Umberto Eco in December 2010 (REUTERS/Andrea Comas)

“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry”

In the world of crime fiction, Umberto Eco was most famous for his first novel, The Name of the Rose (1980), which is accurately described on the author’s website as ‘an intellectual mystery combining semiotics, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory’. The novel’s 500 pages provide readers with a riveting murder mystery, a wonderful detective (Brother William of Baskerville), a rich portrait of 14th-century monastic life and medieval intellectual/religious conflict. The fiendishly clever solution remains one of the best in the crime fiction.

I love the possibly apocryphal stories that Eco wrote The Name of the Rose in response to a dare, or because “I felt like poisoning a monk”. It may therefore have been something of a surprise to him that the novel sold 10 million copies in over 30 languages.

Eco regarded himself primarily as an academic who wrote fiction on the side. His key areas of inquiry were philosophy and semiotics (the study of signs), and he wrote influential articles on literary theory and popular culture. His essay collection The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979) has been useful in my own academic work on crime fiction, particularly the distinction he makes between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ texts (the latter offer the reader greater interpretive agency, rather than steering readers towards a predetermined narrative closure). Grazie, Professore.

Further reading:

Eco 2

Eco’s original sketch for the labyrinthine abbey library in The Name of the Rose

12 thoughts on “A salute to Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

    • Wonderful, Angela! What are you writing your PhD on?

      If I remember rightly, Eco uses detective novels as an example of ‘closed’ texts, because of the repetition inherent in the genre’s formula. Joyce’s Modernist novel Ulysses is the example given of an ‘open’ text. In the present day, I think that juxtaposition is a little outdated, as many crime writers have successfully subverted the genre in their novels to make them a much more open/challenging reading experience (e.g. David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet). But the terms still hold good more broadly.

      I think I’m also right in saying that Eco sees the reader reception angle from two directions – the text and the reader. There’s the question of how much leeway the text gives the reader to produce meaning. Conversely, there’s the question of what kind of text the reader seeks out – some prefer closed texts precisely because they are undemanding and similar to others the reader has already consumed.

  1. Very nice remarks about both authors. To Kill a Mockingbird was a major book over here, taught in schools, meant to convey ethics and the need for justice and oppose bigotry. It was a real contribution. Imagine to many readers’ surprise and horror that the recently published To Set a Watchman is in stark contrast to Harper Lee’s first book.
    The praise of Umberto Eco is well placed. I have not read his fiction, although I will one day. Sent my nephew Foucault’s Pendulum for his birthday at his request; his friends are reading it. I await his review.

    • There was lots of reaction/disappointment following publication of Go Set a Watchman on this side of the pond as well. You can’t help but wonder what the motivation was behind publication. Hard not to suspect that money (on the part of the publisher/publishing industry) was the driving force. I do hope that the author was shielded from exposure to the fall-out, given her age.

      Did you see Margot’s great blog post on how readers deal with characters who have ‘feet of clay’? I will add it to the reading list for Harper Lee in my post.

      Sarah Weinman also wrote a very thought-provoking piece on the whole saga – again, will add in a moment.

  2. I love the bit about “he just felt like poisoning a monk” It reminds me of my method of getting my then elderly father to read Philip Pullman’s trilogy. I handed him Northern Lights and said “It starts with someone trying to poison the head of an Oxford college,” and he immediately seized it from my hands and went on to enjoy all the other books!

  3. Money was very much involved in the publishing of Go Set a Watchman. Harper Lee was not in good health. Many people were suspicious of this publishing deal. It’s very disappointing that once again profits took precedence over principles.

  4. I disagree wholeheartedly with the notion that because Go Set a Watchman is supposedly a “lesser book,” that it should not have been published. I do agree that money was the predominate motivation for publishing it, but how often is it true that money has nothing to do with a publication from a major press?
    So the profit motive aside, how can anyone say that Harper Lee’s credibility and credentials as a writer are in any way diminished by the publication of this book? What is so wrong with this book? Why doesn’t it do her credit? It was her first book, and I find much to admire in it.
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Hello, Judith. I have to hold my hands up here and say that I’ve not read more than extracts from Watchman, and so am not qualified to give a proper assessment of the whole book. From what I’ve read, the main concern/disappointment related to the depiction of Atticus Finch and his views on racial segregation (and how they contrast to Mockingbird).

      Sarah Weinman’s piece gives a thought-provoking overview of the concerns relating to the book’s publication and the possible pressure placed on the author (link at the end of the Lee section in the post).

  5. Lots of information here in the New York Times and other newspapers and articles, which revealed very different stories were revealed about how the manuscript was “found,” and the events surrounding its “discovery.” It depended on who explained it and when that person explained it. Very mysterious and murky background to the whole thing.
    And readers were very disappointed that Atticus Finch,” a principled man and hero to millions of readers, who stood up to racists and defended a Black man — very rare at that time in the South — was seen to be a real hard-core racist and segregationist.
    Schools here assigned that book and Atticus as pointed to as a role model. People named their children after him.
    Now, how do millions of readers feel? Betrayed or else distrustful of the publication of “Watchman,” and that Harper
    Lee was manipulated or else didn’t know what was happening.
    One has to have followed the story in the press and read readers’ and critics’ viewpoints to get the whole picture.

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