NEAL CONAN, host:
Now here's a story that you, your parents and your children have all probably read. It starts in summer in a sleepy town in Alabama during the Great Depression. As three children play in the yard, they eye the spooky house of the odd neighbor down the street. The shy Boo Radley, Atticus Finch, the most principled lawyer in literature, and his feisty daughter, Scout, all turn 50 this Sunday. Harper Lee's story of racism and rebirth in a small town in the South was published to great acclaim in the summer of 1960. It's enjoyed enormous success ever since.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary, Mary McDonagh Murphy interviewed residents of Harper Lee's hometown, Monroeville, and a few people of note whose lives were changed by the time they spent in the fictional Maycomb, including Oprah Winfrey, novelists Wally Lamb and Anna Quindlen and Tom Brokaw. She joins us in just a moment.
We also want to hear from you. Call and tell us about the people and places in Maycomb that mean the most to you: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mary McDonagh Murphy is an independent documentary director and writer - her book is "Scout, Atticus, Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'" - and joins us today from the studios of member station WRNI in Providence. Nice to have you with us today.
Ms. MARY McDONAGH MURPHY (Author, "Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird"): Thanks so much for having me.
CONAN: And I just wanted to read you an email we got from Jack: I'm afraid we're going to have to turn off NPR today, as I've picked up the book for the first time just last week, and I'm completely submerged in it. I cannot wait for the weekend to finish off this book, and I do not want to ruin any of the storyline with your spotlight today. Shame on me for not reading it in high school when it was assigned.
Ms. MURPHY: Well, I certainly envy Jack, his entire weekend, because an adult reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
CONAN: Now, you grew up in Rhode Island, a pretty different place than the Alabama of 1960. When were you first transported to Maycomb?
Ms. MURPHY: I read - I almost escaped high school without reading "To Kill a Mockingbird," but fortunately, my mother and sister who know quite a lot about books, stopped me in my tracks and got me to read "To Kill a Mockingbird." It was not assigned when I - to me...
Ms. MURPHY: ...in high school. And I was utterly in the tank for Scout upon first reading. But...
CONAN: And a lot of what you write about in your book - well, a lot of it's interviews with these people, but a lot of what you write about in the first part of the book is the revelations of a second reading.
Ms. MURPHY: Yes. My adult reading of "To Kill a Mockingbird" made a far greater impression on me than my adolescent reading. And I was thoroughly blown away by the book, so much so that I wondered if I had actually read the novel before. And I just - I - it was a revelation to me. And I carried it around with me for weeks and just read it out loud, dipped into pages. And it just has stayed with me ever since, of course.
CONAN: And it's so interesting to go back into it as an adult, because our memories are also permeated by the marvelous film.
Ms. MURPHY: I think that's absolutely true. And I know a lot of people have trouble now separating the book from the movie. And if you're reading the novel now, you - Mary Badham playing Scout may be flickering in the background of your brain while you read along. The two really do twine for people.
CONAN: Here's another email, this from Peter in Tucson: I taught "To Kill a Mockingbird" in high school to high school freshmen. Every year, I would get a little choked up at the scene in chapter 15, where a vigilante group comes to the jail to get the innocent black prisoner, Tom Robinson, but is blocked by Atticus. Scout comes out of the shadows and recognizes one of the men, Mr. Cunningham, her classmate's father. She asks how his entailments are doing and tells him to say hey to his son for her. Cunningham is immediately ashamed, says, I'll tell him, little lady, and then tells the men to disperse. This is my favorite of the many wonderful scenes in the book.
One of the questions you asked your interview subjects was what their favorite scene was, and it was astonishing how many different scenes they came up with.
Ms. MURPHY: That's one of the things that surprised me the most, Neal, doing this entire project, is everywhere I went, I ask everyone to read a favorite passage from the novel. And, invariably, everyone read something different, which - there were only two passages that were repeated, the classic, stand up - you know, Ms. Jean Louis, stand up. Your father's passing.
Ms. MURPHY: And then both Rick Bragg and James McBride read from the beginning of the book. Otherwise, everyone chose a different passage. I happen to love when Scout scatters the lynch mob. And I became very close friends with a screenwriter and director named Liz Tirrell. And we bonded because Liz could recite, you know, hey, Mr. Cunningham, I know your boy, Walter. I'm Jean Louise Finch.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MURPHY: And people - you know, that's the thing about this novel. It really brings people together. People connect, and friendships are formed over it.
CONAN: Mary from Hudson, Wisconsin, writes: I received my law degree in 1985 and spent 10 years in the courtroom in a small town. I had the privilege of practicing with a real-life Atticus Finch who cared about the community he grew up in. And I believe the book is still relevant today, and should be taught to our young adults as an example of civic duty - not just by Atticus, but the burden that his children carried because he did the right thing. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
And there are several lawyers who respond in your book - well, one who, of course, is a lawyer and a novelist, Scott Turow.
Ms. MURPHY: Yes. And Scott Turow goes to some length to point out that Atticus is a paragon among paragons, but he is not a caricature. And, of course, everybody wants a father like Atticus, as someone told me, but nobody really has one.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: But the character, not a crusader, somebody - and there's the description again. I'm getting it from your book, and I'm forgetting who said it. But Atticus does no - takes no joy in shooting the mad dog. He does it because he has to do it...
Ms. MURPHY: Yeah.
CONAN: ...the same way he addresses the case that's handed to him.
Ms. MURPHY: Yeah. I mean, that was Diane Mcwhorter, who wrote the really wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Birmingham, Alabama and the civil rights movement. But, yeah, I mean, I think people forget that sometimes that this novel was said in the '30s, and that Atticus the - court-appointed lawyer. He didn't - he wasn't the crusader who took on the case. The judge gave it to Atticus, and the revealing thing about what he did was that he defended Tom Robinson rigorously. He didn't just give it a pass.
CONAN: He just didn't give it a pass.
Ms. MURPHY: Yeah.
CONAN: So, the - let's see if we got another caller on the line. Let's go next to Charlie, Charlie is with us from High River in Georgia.
CHARLIE (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
Ms. MURPHY: Thanks.
CHARLIE: I think my favorite part of the book was when Atticus was speaking with Scout on the front porch about what they were seeing concerning Tom Robinson, and essentially why he was defending him. And I believe that all-in-all, a lot Southerners, even at that time, even at that really, really - how'd you say - angered time that the book portrays, I believe a lot of the Southerners felt like Atticus Finch, that this man deserved the right to a fair trial.
And yes, I agree with the last caller, that he did defend him rigorously and gave everything he had to it. It drained the man during the reading of the book, and even during the movie. Gregory Peck portrayed it perfectly, I think.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. There's an interesting - the first recollection that's in the book, or the first interview that Mary McDonagh Murphy does is Mary Badham, the actress, the young girl who played Scout, and she was describing how difficult it was for her to cry in that scene.
Ms. MURPHY: Yes, she was. And Mary's recollections are those of a 10-year-old, a nine-year-old girl on a movie set. You know, and it's funny to talk to her about it, because she goes on about they gave her an onion and she couldn't cry and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MURPHY: ...but what I would say to Charlie is - you know, Tom Brokaw is one of the people who loves the scene that you described. And I think you're absolutely right, that there were plenty of Southerners who were progressive or, at least, you know, tolerant people who really responded to this novel because it gave white Southerners a way to question the system and to go another way. And that was very important when it came out.
CONAN: Charlie, thanks very much.
CHARLIE: Not a problem, sir.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Laura in Gilroy, Georgia writes on email: We named our son Atticus last year. We love the name and think Atticus Finch is a great character to be named after. We hope our son will choose to go by this name when he grows up, and not his middle name.
Ms. MURPHY: Well, here's a fun fact about that: Not only is Atticus Finch one of the most often-quoted reasons people go to law school - I did look this up with the Social Security indexes, and there have been about 1,300 people named Atticus since 1960. So you can see what he did for people, not just for literature, but for baby names.
CONAN: And I understand more than a few girls have been named Scout.
Ms. MURPHY: Yes, they have.
CONAN: I also - it was - interested to read that Atticus Finch is cited as one of the great movie heroes of all time. You don't think of Atticus Finch as a hero in the shape of a, well, you know, Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Ms. MURPHY: No. And, in fact, I followed a couple of eighth grade classes as they were reading the book, and one of the things that kids love to do now is recast the movie. And so, I've heard Kevin Kline. I've heard Tom Hanks and a lot of George Clooney...
Ms. MURPHY: ...when it comes to who should play Atticus now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, does anybody cast Boo Radley?
Ms. MURPHY: I haven't heard the kids do it. They mostly focus on Atticus.
CONAN: On Atticus. He's the...
Ms. MURPHY: But as we all know, Robert Duvall - that was his - you know, wordless screen debut at - in that 1962 adaptation.
CONAN: And nobody who reads it has to cast Scout because, well, we're all Scout.
Ms. MURPHY: Exactly. And, of course, I don't think you can really think of Scout without thinking of Mary Badham. It's just too seared into your consciousness now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Let's go to Long Island in New York, and Alicia is with us on the line.
ALICIA (Caller): Hi. I'm so glad that I caught this program. I'm an eight grade teacher in - on Long Island, and I love this book. And every single year that I read it, it just gets better and better. I've had kids tell me at first that they hate the book. It's so slow. I tell them, stay with it, stay with it. And by the end, I have kids on the verge of tears. I, myself, am always choked up while reading the verdict, in the very end, when she's standing on the Radley's porch and looking at everything. And it's just such a wonderful book, and I've read it, literally, hundreds of times. And I'm so glad that it's still being read, and it will continue to be read in schools.
CONAN: Alicia, thank you very much for that. And do you continue to teach it?
ALICIA: Actually, this past year will be my last year teaching it since we are reworking our curriculum. But I've read it so many times, I have - I've perfected my Southern accent, and I've given voices to every single character. And I'm going to miss it sorely.
CONAN: Well, I believe Long Island is in the southern district of New York, so perhaps you're entitled to a bit of that. So...
ALICIA: You know, that's what I say.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Alicia, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
ALICIA: Thank you.
Ms. MURPHY: I talked to a couple of - a couple of people in my books had taught the novel for 25 years, including Wally Lamb, who taught high school English, and Lee Smith, the novelist. And they talk about a very similar experience that Alicia described.
And I think one of the reasons that it's such a great book for teachers is because there are so many different things in it that kids can relate to, one way or another. And so if you can't get the kid in the back row with Boo, you might be able to get him with Atticus.
Ms. MURPHY: Because the novel's so rich, and there's so much for people.
CONAN: We're talking with Mary McDonagh Murphy, a documentary director and writer. Her book is "Scout, Atticus and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
An email from Tom in St. Louis: Did she really write the book? Some speculate Truman Capote, her friend, wrote it.
Ms. MURPHY: There is every bit of evidence she wrote the book. In fact, there's slightly more evidence that she had more to do with Truman Capote's book "In Cold Blood" than he ever had to do with "To Kill a Mockingbird." A lot of the reasons this rumor kind of - this myth crops up is because Nell Harper Lee -famously, now - accompanied her childhood friend, Truman Capote, a little boy who had grown up next door to her in Monroeville. He grew up to be a writer, moved to New York, and he began to look into this murder in Kansas City and asked her, his childhood friend, if she would support him in this and go with him and help him. And she did, which is a very, very generous act of friendship.
The novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," at that time, was complete. It just had not, you know, appeared in book stores yet. So that trip, where the two of them were together before the novel was published, and the fact that Truman Capote, you know, never denied the - this little rumor that he might have had something to do with it, all sort of fueled this myth.
CONAN: And, indeed, you say in your book that, in fact, you quote friends is saying Truman was insanely jealous that she got the Pulitzer Prize and he did not.
Ms. MURPHY: Yeah. That comes from Harper Lee's older sister, Ms. Alice Finch Lee, who is 98 years old and still practicing law every day at Barnett, Bugg Lee and Carter, the firm in Monroeville, Alabama, that her father helped to found. And she said that they had been - Nell Harper and Truman were very, very close, playmates as children, but that Truman, him - as he went on in life, became just too jealous that Harper Lee had won the Pulitzer Prize, that "To Kill a Mockingbird" had won the Pulitzer. And he just could not abide by it.
CONAN: Let's go next to Barbara, Barbara with us from West Palm Beach.
BARBARA (Caller): Hi.
BARBARA: Wonderful show.
CONAN: Thank you.
BARBARA: I wanted to say that I named my son, who's almost eight, Atticus, and reread the book right before he was born to make sure I really wanted to do that. And I'm a writer, so I was just taken by reading it as a mature adult to see the amazing way that she was able to pretend that she was writing from a child's point of view.
Ms. MURPHY: Mm-hmm.
BARBARA: ...and tackle, you know, difficult, complex adult issues that it seemed we're going over the narrator's head. About - when my son was a couple of years old, I decided to drop her a note, and I just addressed it to her name and her town, and I sent her a copy of my own book. And I just said that - I sent a picture of my son, as well.
Well, she wrote back, to my surprise. And it was such a gracious note. It was just lovely. And she mentioned she'd have trouble reading my book because her eyesight is bad, but she said that my son was very handsome and looked like he could bear the name, which, of course, came from a Greek general and politician.
Ms. MURPHY: Right. Right. Oh, how lucky for you. And I think you make a really good point about the writing. I mean, the narration is a very difficult feat to pull off. And you can ask any writer about that.
BARBARA: Oh, it's almost impossible. Almost impossible.
Ms. MURPHY: And one of the things that I think sometimes really gets overlooked in any discussion of "To Kill a Mockingbird" - because there are so many things you can discuss that are in the book: race, tolerance, judgment, loneliness, childhood - is the actual writing and construction of the novel itself, which is magnificent.
BARBARA: Oh, it's extraordinarily, skillfully written and - of a great artist. And the pity is that she never published anything else, because - I mean, her capacity to examine all kinds of human issues would be just limitless, in my opinion.
CONAN: Barbara, thanks very much for the call.
BARBARA: Thank you.
CONAN: We'll end with this email we got from Paul in Minnesota: One of the things I remember best was Scout dressing up for the school pageant as a ham. And the cue for her to come out: pork.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Drawing out the word that way has ended my vocabulary as a way of advocating it for dinner.
Mary McDonagh Murphy, thanks very much.
Ms. MURPHY: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure, just like reading the book.
CONAN: And good luck with the book. Thanks very much. "Scout, Atticus and Boo" is the book, "A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird." I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.