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A Week to Remember: To Kill a Mockingbird

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published on July 11, 1960. The novel was an instant success, and quickly became a standard of American literature.

Lee was born in 1926, and grew up in Monroeville, Alabama. She studied law at the University of Alabama, then moved to New York in 1950, where she began writing essays and stories about her childhood in Monroeville. By 1956, she had enough material to show to a literary agent, who encouraged her to continue writing, and suggested that there might be a novel somewhere in the pieces she’d already written.

Lee’s friends pooled their resources to give her an extraordinary Christmas gift—a year’s wages so that she would have uninterrupted time for writing. Lee made good use of that time, and delivered the first draft of a novel to Lippincott Publishers in late 1957. The Lippincott editors were impressed with the skill Lee displayed in what she was then calling Go Set a Watchman—we will return to that title, and that draft, a bit later—but told her that there was still a lot of work needed.

When Lee finally produced a version of her novel that pleased the publisher, Lippincott suggested the title Atticus; Lee thought that made the book sound too much like a character study, and they agreed on the title To Kill a Mockingbird (e-book | e-audio | print | audio).

The novel is set during the Great Depression, in a small Alabama town. The story is told by six-year-old Jean Louise (nicknamed “Scout”), in a narrative voice that combines the directness and innocence of childhood with the wisdom and understanding of the adult Scout looking back at her past. Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, is an attorney who has been appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. Through the events of the trial and her aftermath, Scout begins to understand the racism of the world around her, and the strength of her father’s character.

To Kill a Mockingbird is not autobiographical, but there are elements of Lee’s life in it. Her own father was an attorney, who defended two black men accused of murder in 1919. The men were convicted and hanged, and their bodies mutilated by an angry mob; Lee’s father never tried another criminal case. The characters of Scout and her brother Jem are loosely based on Lee and her own brother, and their neighbor Dill, is thought to be inspired by Truman Capote, who lived in Monroeville for some time as a child.

Critical reaction to Lee’s novel was generally strong, though some found Scout’s narration implausibly sophisticated for so young a child. Southern writers were among the harshest critics of the book; Flannery O’Connor thought it was “interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book,” and Carson McCullers grumbled that Lee was “poaching on my literary preserves.”

3 books related to Harper Lee

But the public loved the book. It was a selection of the Book of the Month Book, and a feature in Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. It won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, and within a year, had been translated into ten languages. It’s now been translated into more than 40, and the book has never been out of print in the United States.

In 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted as a film. Gregory Peck starred as Atticus Finch, and won the Academy Award for his performance, one of three received by the movie. (Elmer Bernstein’s score was also nominated, but did not win.) Lee and Peck became good friends during the making of the film, and at the end of filming, she gave him her father’s pocket watch as a gift; he wore it the night he won the Oscar.

Within a few years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee was no longer giving interviews about the book, saying that they had become monotonous, and that she was not interested in becoming a celebrity. Lee’s next literary project was to assist her old friend Truman Capote, going with him to Kansas to help research the murder he wrote about in In Cold Blood (e-book | e-audio | print). Two different movies about Capote and Keener in Kansas were released a few months apart in 2005 and 2006; Lee was played by Catherine Keener in Capote, and by Sandra Bullock in Infamous.

Lee began work on a second novel, but never finished it. In the 1980s, Lee began work on a true crime book about an Alabama serial killer, but abandoned that project as well. Casey Cep writes about Lee’s involvement in that case in Furious Hours (e-book | e-audio | print | audio)

In her final years, Lee rarely traveled very far from Monroeville. She made one of her few long-distance trips in 2005, traveling to Los Angeles at the request of Veronique Peck, Gregory’s widow, to receive the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2007, and the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2010.

It wasn’t until 2015 that Lee published a second book. The news that the 1957 draft version, Go Set a Watchman (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), was being published after so long generated controversy. Some questioned whether Lee had actually authorized the publication, leading to an investigation by the state of Alabama. The state concluded that there was no basis for the claims of coercion and elder abuse.

Harper Lee died in her sleep on February 9, 2016. Charles J. Shields’s biography is Mockingbird (print). Two of Lee’s friends have published memoirs about their relationships with her, Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door (e-book | e-audio | print) and Wayne Flynt’s Mockingbird Songs (e-book | e-audio | print).

A stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, written by Aaron Sorkin, opened on Broadway in late 2018.

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