Fifty years after its publication, Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of racial injustice in a small Southern town ranks as one of the most beloved books in American literature.
(This article first appeared in MS Issue #101, Fall 2007.)
Harper Lee published only one novel in her lifetime, but nearly a half-century after its initial publication, To Kill A Mockingbird stands as one of the best-loved works in all of American literature. The story, which originally touched sensitive chords in America's unfolding Civil Rights drama, still reverberates today in the national psyche: a white woman's false accusation of rape against a black man in small-town Alabama; countrymen up in arms and ready not just to convict but to kill the accused; a tense trial whose evidence, examinations and cross-examinations send shockwaves through the whole community. The entire town and now several generations of readers waited for justice to be served or denied.
Contributing greatly to our experience of this Depression-era tale is the novel's young narrator, Scout Finch. Only six years old as the novel begins, Scout sees the world around her with fresh, innocent eyes, and she presents that world through vivid images which underscore both the idylls and the idiosyncrasies of small-town Southern life:
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
Embedded in such descriptions, of course, are the inklings of darker tidings the sense of poverty and isolationism; languor perched on the edge of exhaustion and loneliness; the implicit knowledge that there is indeed much to fear beyond fear itself, even in such a simple spot.
If the town is perched precariously on the edge of something darker, with Scout as firsthand witness, she too stands on the verge of transition. Joined by her older brother Jem and a young boy named Dill, she embarks on a series of typical childhood adventures many of them centered on an enigmatic house just down the street. Spurred on by feelings of curiosity and fear about Boo Radley, the malevolent phantom who lives there, the young trio tries to lure him out with hair-raising (and pants-ripping!) results but Scout's adventures there serve as one part of a dramatic coming-of-age, as her relationship to Radley, a man she s never met, takes on a depth and tenderness that the two boys don' t readily experience.
In the meantime, Scout also sees and experiences what happens to her father, Atticus, when he takes up the case of Tom Robinson, the Negro accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman in town. Schoolyard taunts first draw Scout into the case, but her involvement hardly stops there. Atticus the epitome of a Southern gentleman (and a sharp shot with a rifle) stands as the wise and moral center of the unfolding court drama; as an article in The Companion to Southern Literature describes him: Among the patrician lawyers in Southern fiction who confront the South's racial dilemma, he is the most courageous and the most admirable. But Scout again plays a more pivotal and urgent role. Readers of the book and fans of the film adaptation will recall fondly the scene where Scout almost single-handedly, if unwittingly, turns back an angry lynch mob; the later scenes where she stares down with curiosity, awe and admiration at the court proceedings from the upstairs section of the courtroom, the Colored balcony; and her targeting by a revenge-minded Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, toward the book's end. It's in these moments that Scout serves as our guide to not only the unfolding community crisis but also to the entire social, racial and moral landscape of the Deep South in the 1930s.
The Woman Behind the Novel
What is the relationship between Scout Finch and Harper Lee herself?
Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. Monroeville, where she lives today, almost unquestionably served as the basis for the fictional Maycomb. Lee's own childhood also overlaps with the 1930s time period during which her novel is set. Lee's father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a lawyer working in Monroeville--a devoted citizen and a man of high integrity--and he reportedly served as the basis for Atticus Finch, though the character's surname was in fact drawn from Lee' s mother, Frances Cunningham Finch Lee.
Many scholars have traced To Kill A Mockingbird's roots back to the Scottsboro Trial--an early 1930s case in which nine black boys were charged with raping two white women on a train en route to Alabama--pointing to the fact that Lee herself was about Scout's age as the crime and court drama played themselves out in her native state. But in his recent book Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles Shields details the events of yet another trial even closer to Lee' s Monroeville, in which a white woman named Naomi Lowery accused Walter Letts, a black man, of rape, drawing even more parallels between fictional Maycomb and Lee's real-life hometown.
In addition to being highly recommended to fans of To Kill A Mockingbird seeking insight into Lee's life, Shields' book will also interest readers wanting to know more about her lifelong friendship with another writer who spent part of his childhood in Monroeville: Truman Capote, who is famously the basis for the character of Dill. Just as Capote spent time on extended visits with elderly relatives in Alabama, so too did Dill spend summers in Maycomb with his aunt, Miss Rachel, and readers might find themselves glimpsing the adult Capote in the novel's descriptions of Dill:
Dill was a curiosity. He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow-white and stuck to his head like duck-fluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him. As he told us the old tale [of Dracula] his blue eyes would lighten and darken; his laugh was sudden and happy; he habitually pulled at a cowlick in the center of his forehead.
(Interestingly, just as Lee used Capote as the inspiration for Dill, so too had Capote drawn on Lee for one of the characters in his own debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Later, during the time just before and just after the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee worked closely with Capote on research for his own crime-based book, In Cold Blood, helping tone down the flamboyant writer's entrance into rural Kansas, assisting with interviews with authorities and others, and even helping with the writing itself. The sometimes difficult working relationship between the two during this time period is explored in Shields' biography and also in two recent films: Capote (2005), with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role and Catherine Keener as Lee, and Infamous (2006), with Toby Jones and Sandra Bullock.
As a young woman, Lee didn't start her literary career immediately, but instead set out to follow in her father's footsteps with a career in law. She attended Huntington College and the University of Alabama and even studied abroad at Oxford University, but left the university setting before earning her degree. Deciding on a writer's life, she headed off to New York to hone her craft. She worked as an airline reservations clerk first and then relied on the financial support of friends as she wrote the short stories that, with the help of editors at Lippincott, would eventually coalesce into her debut novel.
And what an enviable debut it was.
Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) and Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Capote (2005) by director Bennett Miller.
Success Then and Now
To Kill A Mockingbird found almost immediate popularity after its publication in July 1960. The book was chosen by both the Literary Guild and the Book-of-the-Month Club and by the Reader's Digest for their condensed book series. It was soon at the top of both the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times bestseller lists, ultimately spending nearly two years on that latter. Within its first year of publication, the book had sold a half-million copies and been translated into 10 languages.
To Kill a Mockingbird's popularity was matched by critical acclaim. The New York Times review on the eve of the book's publication praised Lee for her gentle affection, rich humor and deep understanding of small-town family life in Alabama, and a Chicago Tribune article was titled Engrossing First Novel of Rare Excellence. Though many reviews were mixed, the novel was crowned with a place in the critical pantheon within a year: In May 1961, To Kill A Mockingbird was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
By this time, efforts were already underway to adapt the book into a motion picture. In fact, the closing words of the New York Times review predicted not only a film treatment but also the as-yet-unmade movie's ultimate success: some of the scenes suggest that Miss Lee is cocking at least one eye toward Hollywood. Moviegoing readers will be able to cast most of the roles very quickly, but it is no disparagement of Miss Lee's winning book to say that it could be the basis of an excellent film.
Such a prediction was understated at best. Directed by Robert Mulligan from a screenplay by Horton Foote (Lee herself said that the script should be studied as a classic ), To Kill A Mockingbird the film boasted an excellent cast, with Gregory Peck in the lead role as Atticus Finch, Mary Badham (a young girl with no acting experience) as Scout, Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, and a young Robert Duvall in his big screen debut as Boo Radley. In early 1963, the film opened to enthusiastic audiences, with huge crowds marking both the New York and the Alabama premieres. All hands involved are to be congratulated for a job well done, wrote Variety. "Obviously loving care went into the process by which it was converted from the comprehensive prose of the printed page to the visual and dramatic storytelling essence of the screen.... As it unfolds on the screen, To Kill A Mockingbird bears with it, oddly enough, alternating overtones of Faulkner, Twain, Steinbeck, Hitchcock and an Our Gang comedy."
The film was soon nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Badham (at that time the youngest nominee ever for that category); and Best Actor. It ultimately won three awards: for its art and set direction, for Horton Foote's screenplay, and for Peck' s portrayal of Atticus Finch. The actor wore to the ceremony a gift from Harper Lee herself a pocket watch that had belonged to her own father which she'd given Peck for good luck.
Since its publication, the book has sold nearly 40 million copies worldwide becoming one of the most successful novels in publishing history and has now been translated into more than 40 languages. A staple of high school and college reading lists, it ranked fourth in a Fall 1991 survey on " Books that Made A Difference in Reader's Lives," conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress.
Mary Badham as Scout, Phillip Alford as Jem, and John Megna as Dill in the classic 1962 film directed by Robert Mulligan with a screenplay adaptation by Horton Foote.
Librarians across the country voted it the Best Novel of the Century in a 1999 poll conducted by Library Journal. The National Endowment of the Arts named it one of their four "Big Reads" during an initiative launched in 2005 to encourage "communities to come together to read and discuss one book" —an honor that only made official what was already happening in nationwide community-based reading projects where the book had always been a popular choice.
Since 2001, the University of Alabama has hosted a popular essay contest in which Alabama high school students explore new perspectives on the novel. It speaks volumes about the notoriously private author who has been known to reply "Not just no, but hell no" to requests for interviews that she has yet to miss the annual luncheon honoring the winners from each school district.
The film likewise continues to boast devoted fans and new honors. In the most recent polls by the American Film Institute, To Kill A Mockingbird was ranked #25 on the list of Greatest American Films of all time and #2 on the list of Most Inspiring Movies (just behind It's a Wonderful Life). And Atticus Finch still stands today as a marker of all that is good and right with the world; in a related ranking by the AFI, Gregory Peck's portrayal earned the honor as "Greatest Hero in 100 Years of Film History."
Courtroom scene from the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, "Greatest Hero in 100 Years of Film History."
A Classic's Enduring Appeal
Why do readers continue to be enthralled, entertained and moved by To Kill A Mockingbird? To a great degree, the novel's success rests on our sense of outrage at the false accusation of a good man, our desire to see justice prevail over bias and hatred, our empathy with Scout, the young white girl peering down from the Colored Balcony, and our admiration for that brave and often besieged man in the courtroom below, Atticus Finch, after the jury returns its verdict of....
But that would be spoiling the mystery for anyone who hasn't read the book yet, wouldn't it? Suffice it to say that few readers are unmoved by the moment in both book and film when Atticus exits the courtroom at trial's end, when all those men and women relegated to that upper balcony rise to their feet, and Reverend Sykes tells young Scout, as if through the haze of a dream, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'."
" I bawled when Scout was told to stand up, when all the black people stood up as Atticus Finch left the courtroom," said Margaret Maron, whose Hard Row is the 13th in the Deborah Knott series about a North Carolina attorney. Though Maron had seen the movie, she had never read the book until after she'd written Bootlegger's Daughter and a reviewer had commented that Deborah was Scout all growed up.
" I'm sure I would have loved the book even if I'd read it before seeing the movie, but to read it with the image of Gregory Peck in my head as Atticus was an extra bonus," said Maron. "The book itself was so honest and touched so many chords in me that I was glad I hadn't read it until after I'd created Deborah's world. Otherwise I would have felt both intimidation and a fear that I was treading in Harper Lee's vineyard."
"Harper Lee created a world at once particular and universal," said Carolyn Hart, whose latest book is Set Sail for Murder. "We know Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus, Cal, Boo, the Ewells, and all the others, good and bad, kind and ugly, brave and frightened. We know them as part of our lives."
Calling To Kill A Mockingbird " a perfect book," Hart pointed out that Scout reflect the wondering child and knowing adult in all of us. Between innocence and knowledge, To Kill A Mockingbird explores the desperate struggle to make connections between souls. That interplay between innocence and knowledge may be the key to the book's lasting popular appeal and its favored spot on the canon of most-taught books.
" To Kill A Mockingbird could have bombed at the time on the issue of race," said Lucinda MacKethan, a Southern literature professor at North Carolina State University and co-editor of The Companion to Southern Literature. "The White South was still benighted in its outlook on race when the book came out, and Lee's honest, sympathetic treatment of this one area could have made the novel less popular. But the one thing she did to make her angle very different, and not just judgmental, right off the bat, was to make this a story of coming-of-age the confrontation of innocence with experience, which is the universal story. To Kill A Mockingbird starts out to be about family, and the continuing success of the book is the relationship between those two children and between Scout and her father. In the end, Scout is protected from elemental evil, but that doesn't save her from learning something in the process."
Harper Lee and Mary Badham on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird.
As Scout learns something about her community and herself, so too have readers found their own eyes and hearts opened, their own perspectives irrevocably broadened. Almost 50 years have passed since the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, almost 80 since the events depicted in the book, and the South is no longer the place that Lee described so vividly and to such visceral effect. But if there s been change in the region over the years, the book still serves as an eternal window into a pivotal era in our nation's history, and more than that, as a profound, almost mythic story of good and evil: universal, as Hart emphasized, and moral at its core. And that keen morality and seriousness of purpose have made To Kill A Mockingbird a model for what the modern novel can accomplish.
"All contemporary writers of mystery who would claim for their fiction that it is art, owe homage to Harper Lee," said Michael Malone, author of Time's Witness and First Lady, among others. "Especially Southern writers owe her a debt so large, so lasting, that every novel we write is, in a sense, a token of our gratitude. It was through To Kill A Mockingbird, far more immediately even than through the works of Faulkner, that we learned how Southern literature in a line straight from Huckleberry Finn to Scout Finch has taken its place at the heart of all our nation's literature. Our greatest novels, she taught us, and showed us, may be Southern, may be mysteries. These novels look intimately at our heart of darkness, at race relations in this country, and their heroes like Huck Finn, like Scout Finch and her father Atticus need be no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of what is right and true. This magnificent stand, made immortal by art, is Harper Lee's legacy to us."