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To Kill A Mockingbird

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10.07.07

An American Classic Turns 50

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published by J. B. Lippincott July 11, 1960. 

Critical reception was strong.  The first line of the review in the Washington Post echoed the perception of other reviewers of the book’s moral impact:  "A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere 18 ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird.

Its beauty and power grabbed readers as well, making it an instant bestseller.  It remained on the New York Times best seller list for 88 weeks, winning the Pulitzer Prize during that time, and has sold more than 30 million copies since then.  If any novel deserves to be known as the Great American Novel, this is surely it.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of a small southern town and its response to the moral dilemma of meting out justice in a world of segregation and racism.  It is also the story of the coming of age of Scout Finch, who recalls the events of a three-year period beginning with the summer before she enters elementary school.  A tomboy, she plays pranks with her older brother Jem and their friend Dill to see if they can draw their mysterious, reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, out of his house.  Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, a widower, accepts the responsibility for defending Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, and teaches his children the meaning of honor.  These two story lines play out along parallel lines, finally converging near the book’s conclusion.

Harper Lee’s writing is magnificent in its profound simplicity, its telling characterizations of the people of Maycomb, Alabama from the viewpoint of a child.  To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those special books which can be read and appreciated by both teens and adults, and which reveals something new and fresh each time one reads it.

Harper Lee drew heavily upon her own experiences in writing To Kill a Mockingbird.  She grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, a sleepy southern community much like Maycomb.  Like Scout, she was a tomboy, an independent thinker, and not always well behaved in school.  Her father, an attorney, defended a black father and son accused of murdering a white storekeeper, for which they were hanged.  It was a seminal experience of her youth.  Lee’s father also edited the town’s newspaper and, while he had great respect for the written word, wanted her to become a lawyer like her sister Alice.  With a mind of her own, however, she chose to write.

She was a longtime friend of Truman Capote, who was her next door neighbor in childhood.  They both loved to read and felt the need to write.  After college, she joined him in New York to follow a writing career, and helped him research the murder case which resulted in his book In Cold Blood.  When her own book came out in 1960, Capote became jealous of her success and their friendship suffered for a time.  Ironically, he had a successful career and fame but his life spiraled downward in drugs and alcohol, while she never wrote another book and retreated into a quiet, private life, refusing to give any interviews for decades.  She still lives in Monroeville with her 98-year-old sister Alice Lee.

To Kill a Mockingbird was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck in 1962.  Although some changes were made to telescope action and intensify focus, the film’s faithfulness to the novel is remarkable, a tribute to Horton Foote who wrote the screenplay.  Foote, Peck, and the set designers won Academy Awards for their work.

Harper Lee’s celebrated reclusiveness has made it difficult for potential biographers to tell the story of her life.  In 2006, however, after four years of research, and without the cooperation of Lee herself, Charles J. Shields published his well-received biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.  This, along with his version for children, I Am Scout, is available at the library.

Also available is the movie on DVD and the audio recording on CD performed by Sissy Spacek.  Celebrate the 50th anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird by visiting or revisiting this classic.  Visit us at www.tcplweb.org or call 988-2541.

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