One of my favorite books turned 52 this year, and the movie made from the book turned 50. Over those years, the compelling story of Atticus, Scout, Tom and Boo has made a deep impression on millions of Americans.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a novel set in a small Alabama town during racial segregation, was published by J. B. Lippencott & Co. in 1960. It is a story of a small-town lawyer defending an unjustly accused man, and the story of a young girl trying to make sense of the world around her.
In 2010, a 50th anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird was published, and a film titled Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird was released. PBS recently aired the film as part of their American Masters program. As a writer, I was interested in learning more about Lee.
Born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, Nelle Harper Lee left Alabama for New York in 1950 after completing college. There she spent eight years supporting herself as an airline reservation agent. She became good friends with a couple who had read and loved some of Lee’s essays. One year, knowing Lee was working on a manuscript for a novel, the couple gave Lee a Christmas gift of money with a note that said Lee could take one year off from her work to write whatever she wants.
Lee took her friends up on their offer and completed her manuscript, then titled Atticus, and secured a literary agent who sent the manuscript to several publishers. All of the publishers rejected the work.
Eventually, an editor at J. B. Lipppincott & Co.—even though the editor felt the manuscript was mostly a series of short stories and needed a lot of work—recognized Lee’s talent and the potential of the story, and signed a contract with Lee.
Lee described what happened next as a long and hopeless period of writing the manuscript over and over again. The writer and editor reshaped and worked on the book for the next two years, until it eventually became what we know today as To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was an immediate success and awarded a Pulitzer Prize, among many other awards.
Lee was 34 when the book was published. She gave several interviews about the novel and the movie, and then stopped. She stepped back from the publicity and public life and hasn’t granted an interview in more than 40 years.
Amazingly, Lee grew up only a few doors away from author Truman Capote. They became childhood friends and remained friends for many years, advising each other on writing and publishing. Lee assisted Capote in his research for his book, In Cold Blood. Eventually they grew apart as Capote embraced fame and Lee avoided it.
Even though Harper Lee never wrote another book, Lee remains one of America’s favorite writers. And 50 years and nearly 50 million copies later, To To Kill a Mockingbird remains required reading in schools across America and continues to be enjoyed by both adolescents and adults.
If you would like to watch the documentary, Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, it can be viewed for free at the following PBS link:
You can also check your PBS schedule for future showings.