Fifty years ago, Harper Lee had the kind of success that most writers only dream about: Shortly after her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published on July 11, 1960, it hit the best-seller lists. In 1961, it won a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1962, it was made into an Academy Award-winning film. It has never gone out of print.
Lee stepped out of the limelight and stopped doing interviews years ago — and she never wrote another book. Still, her influence has far outlasted most writers of her generation.
For the high-schoolers reading To Kill a Mockingbird today, America is a very different place than it was when Lee wrote her novel 50 years ago. Lee's story of Scout Finch and her father, Atticus — a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape — came out just as the nation was fighting over school desegregation.
Today, in a 10th grade English class at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., students of many different races and ethnicities are studying the book together. Their teacher, Laurel Taylor, says that the story still resonates — and with students of all backgrounds.
"Trying to find your identity and realizing that your society doesn't always tell you the right thing" is a particularly profound message for teens, Taylor says. "Sometimes you have to go against what everyone else says to do the right thing. All that kind of resonates no matter where you come from."
Doing The Right Thing
When To Kill a Mockingbird was topping best-seller lists in 1960, protesters were organizing sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters across the South. The civil rights movement was well under way.
Joanne Gabbin, a professor of English at James Madison University in Virginia, grew up in the 1950s and '60s. She was just a child when she saw a photograph of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American teen who was viciously murdered after he reportedly whistled at a white woman.
"I was traumatized as a child by the whole thought of racism," Gabbin says. "And the fact that children weren't safe in this country ... [simply] because of the color of their skin."
Gabbin read To Kill a Mockingbird when she was 17, and says that for her, it was a pivotal book. In Tom Robinson, the African-American man unjustly accused of rape, she saw not a victim, but a hero. He reminded her of her father and grandfather — African-American men who put up with untold humiliation in order to take care of their families. Atticus Finch gave her hope that there really were white people who would do the right thing — and she believes the book may have helped to make that a reality.
hide captionLee, pictured in 1961 in a courthouse in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. The author has led a very private life since her early success — she rarely makes public appearances and declines invitations to speak. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
Donald Uhrbrock/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Lee, pictured in 1961 in a courthouse in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. The author has led a very private life since her early success — she rarely makes public appearances and declines invitations to speak. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
Donald Uhrbrock/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
"People who were determined to keep black people down ... were not going to be reading this book in the first place and were not going to be influenced," Gabbin says. "But I think those people who were moderate, who were more liberal, when they got to read To Kill a Mockingbird, they probably wanted to identify with the courageous character of Atticus Finch."
A New Way To Think About Race
When the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962, the character of Atticus became forever entwined with the actor who portrayed him, Gregory Peck. But whether you first encountered him on page or on screen, Atticus was unforgettable — a modest man of great integrity, he managed to impart his wisdom without being too preachy.
"There's been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn't do much about defending this man," he tells his daughter, Scout, in the 1962 film adaptation. "If I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do somethin' again."
hide captionGregory Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his 1962 performance in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his 1962 performance in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The relationship between Atticus and his 6-year-old daughter is the emotional heart of the book. For many readers — and for many female readers in particular — feisty, fearless Scout is the most memorable character.
"The story of Scout's initiation and maturing is the story of finding out who you are in the world," says author Mary McDonagh Murphy. "And at the same time, the novel is about finding out who we are as a country."
Murphy's new book, Scout, Atticus & Boo, is based on interviews about To Kill a Mockingbird with well-known writers, journalists, historians and artists. Murphy says the novel, narrated from a child's point of view, gave white people, especially in the South, a nonthreatening way to think about race differently.
"The book is structured with all these indelible characters," Murphy says. "The ending is not this triumphant good over evil ... I mean there's real moral ambiguity to what happened. It all combined to allow them to question the moral order of things."
hide captionNotre Dame students hold up copies of To Kill a Mockingbird during commencement ceremonies in May 2006 — during which the university awarded Harper Lee an honorary degree.
Notre Dame students hold up copies of To Kill a Mockingbird during commencement ceremonies in May 2006 — during which the university awarded Harper Lee an honorary degree.
The questions raised by the book were part of a conversation that echoed around the country. It's a conversation that is still going on, and the book endures because people can relate to it in so many different ways.
"It's about race, it's about prejudice, it's about childhood, it's about parenting, it's about love, it's about loneliness — there's something for everyone," Murphy says.
To Kill a Mockingbird didn't change everyone's mind, but it did open some. And it made an impression on many young people who, like Scout, were trying to get a grip on right and wrong in a world that is not always fair.
Excerpt: 'To Kill A Mockingbird'
by Harper Lee
To Kill A Mockingbird By Harper Lee Paperback, 336 pages Harper Perennial Modern Classics List price: $12.99
When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn't have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn't run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn't? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.
Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings. All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was exceeded only by his stinginess. In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens. Mindful of John Wesley's strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher's dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line that ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich.
It was customary for the men in the family to remain on Simon's homestead, Finch's Landing, and make their living from cotton. The place was self-sufficient: modest in comparison with the empires around it, the Landing nevertheless produced everything required to sustain life except ice, wheat flour, and articles of clothing, supplied by river-boats from Mobile.
Simon would have regarded with impotent fury the disturbance between the North and the South, as it left his descendants stripped of everything but their land, yet the tradition of living on the land remained unbroken until well into the twentieth century, when my father, Atticus Finch, went to Montgomery to read law, and his younger brother went to Boston to study medicine. Their sister Alexandra was the Finch who remained at the Landing: she married a taciturn man who spent most of his time lying in a hammock by the river wondering if his trot-lines were full.
When my father was admitted to the bar, he returned to Maycomb and began his practice. Maycomb, some twenty miles east of Finch's Landing, was the county seat of Maycomb County. Atticus's office in the courthouse contained little more than a hat rack, a spittoon, a checkerboard and an unsullied Code of Alabama. His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County jail. Atticus had urged them to accept the state's generosity in allowing them to plead Guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass. The Haverfords had dispatched Maycomb's leading blacksmith in a misunderstanding arising from the alleged wrongful detention of a mare, were imprudent enough to do it in the presence of three witnesses, and insisted that the-son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defense for anybody. They persisted in pleading Not Guilty to first-degree murder, so there was nothing much Atticus could do for his clients except be present at their departure, an occasion that was probably the beginning of my father's profound distaste for the practice of criminal law.
During his first five years in Maycomb, Atticus practiced economy more than anything; for several years thereafter he invested his earnings in his brother's education. John Hale Finch was ten years younger than my father, and chose to study medicine at a time when cotton was not worth growing; but after getting Uncle Jack started, Atticus derived a reasonable income from the law. He liked Maycomb, he was Maycomb County born and bred; he knew his people, they knew him, and because of Simon Finch's industry, Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town.
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...
Excerpted from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.