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.
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"If you convey to a woman that something ought to be done, there is always a dreadful danger that she will suddenly do it."
—Father Brown, "The Song of the Flying Fish," The Secret of Father Brown, 1927, by G.K. Chesterton
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