American Classics: Harper Lee’s Mockingbird

Born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926 and christened Nelle Harper Lee, she was, reportedly, a tomboy and an early reader. Her father was a lawyer and a state legislator. She grew up and remained best friends with her next door neighbor, Truman Capote. Like her, he became a famous writer, and nasty minded people said that he was the one who actually wrote her only novel (so far), To Kill a Mockingbird. Capote never made such a claim. Extensive evidence of communications between Lee and her editor stands against the claim and Lee’s sister insists “That’s the biggest lie ever told.” The closest connection between Mockingbird and Capote’s work comes through the fact that each of them, Capote and Lee, were models for characters in each other’s work; Capote for Dill in Lee’s novel and Lee for a character in Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. They also shared a character that appears in Lee’s novel as Boo Radley. According to Capote, “In my original version of Other Voices, Other Rooms, I had the same man living in the house that used to leave things in the trees [but] I took that out…Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true.” Lee and Capote remained friends into adulthood. She went with him to Holcomb, Kansas to assist in the search for material that later appeared in Capote’s best seller, In Cold Blood.

Harper Lee attended Hunter College in Montgomery for a year then went on to study law at the University of Alabama, all this from 1944-49. In 1950, she headed to New York City. She worked for a while as a clerk for BOAC until friends raised money for her to write unimpeded for a year. Capote helped her find an agent, but in the second year of work on Mockingbird she got so frustrated that she threw the manuscript out the window into a snow bank. Her agent made her fetch it back, and the book was published on July 11th, 1960. It became an instant best seller, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. From the moment of its publication in 1960 it has never been out of print, over 30 million copies have been sold and it’s been translated into 40 languages. In 1991, a survey conducted by the Book of the Month Club and the Library of Congress Center for the Book rated Mockingbird second only to the Bible as one of the books that are “most often cited as making a difference.” In 1999, the Library Journal conducted a poll that voted Mockingbird the best novel of the century.

There are, however, detractors. Writers such as Granville Hicks, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers had early negative reactions. Early criticism from conservative critics complained about Lee’s treatment of poor Whites. Later criticism came from liberal critics complaining about her treatment of Blacks. The episode in which Atticus goes to the jail to save Tom from being lynched has been criticized as having no historical foundation whatsoever. The mockingbird metaphor has been described as reinforcing the concept of superior versus inferior races. It’s been said that the novel robs Black people of their role as subjects of history and presents them as passive, helpless victims…and on it goes.

Every book cannot be everything to all readers. To Kill A Mockingbird is a triadic tale that portrays three White children struggling to break through the veils that conceal the mysteries of the world behind everyday life in the American South of the thirties. In order to be anything, a work of fiction, like a film, must narrow our point of view. To Kill a Mockingbird is not a broad history but a limited impression based on memory of a crucial period experienced in real and/or imagined time and space. However it may reach beyond the restricted area of its focus, it can do so only by implication. The cognitive dissonance experienced by Dill, Scout and Jem, as transmitted to the reader, will eventually break down our racial prisons. Indeed, the major forces that began the battering down of the walls of segregation came out of the real and utter frustration of Blacks in the same decade that the novel was published. But that drive towards liberation came for Lee’s generation as well. In the actual world, though there may never have been such an actual lawyer as Atticus Finch, the fictional Atticus has been celebrated as an actual model for legal practice. It takes the voices of many races and many persuasions to tell the whole story of race and transcendence in America and that work is still in process! Each of us, regardless of cast, race or creed has a part of that story to undergo and tell. To Kill a Mockingbird remains a crucial part of that process, not only in America but in the world as well.