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Posted at 9:56 AM ET, 07/11/2010

The story behind ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

By Valerie Strauss

For those who somehow missed it, Sunday is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and dozens of events -- readings, mock trials, silent auctions, birthday parties -- are being held across the country to celebrate. In a country with an attention span of about 10 seconds, this is quite an achievement.

And for those who somehow never read it, or who never watched the great movie adaptation with Gregory Peck, or who never listened to a discussion in English class, or who never listened to Sissy Spacek’s pleasurable reading on tape (or CD), Mockingbird is a novel of racism and redemption. It tells the story of a Southern lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, and the related tale of his young children -- Scout and Jem -- and their fascination with a mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley.

Seen through the adult eyes of one of the main characters, Scout, who remembers back to the events when she was 6 years old, the book still delights and moves young people as much as it did when it was first published (I’ve watched this with my own children and their classmates).

The novel is set in the 1930s in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala., which was meant to stand in for Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, where the country courthouse was used in the fine 1962 movie and where a weekend long celebration of the book is now underway.

Lee used her surroundings in a number of ways, including basing the character Dill, a friend of Finch's children, on her young playmate Truman Capote, who dedicated his book “In Cold Blood” to Lee, but who later became jealous of her success.

A 50th anniversary edition of "Mockingbird" has been published, and all manner of events are taking place to commemorate the book, though nobody should expect to see Harper Lee in public. She hasn't talked about the book since 1964. "Mockingbird" is the only book she published.

You can see a list of commemorative events at this Web site, http://tokillamockingbird50year.com/, which is dedicated to the 50th anniversary. But the best way to mark the occasion is to read, or reread the book, and if you have children, to do it along with them.

The National Endowment for the Arts has a free reader’s guide online, as well as a teacher’s guide and a lot of other information about the book that can help you take a new look at a book you may think you know well. You can find a lot of great information and history on the endowment's Web site, here: http://www.neabigread.org/books/mockingbird/

The story of how Lee came to write the book is fascinating. Here is how the endowment tells the story:

"Any claims for To Kill a Mockingbird as a book that changed history could not have seemed more far-fetched one winter night in 1958, as Nelle Harper Lee huddled in her outer-borough New York apartment trying to finesse her unruly, episodic manuscript into some semblance of a cohesive novel. All but drowning in multiple drafts of the same material, Lee suddenly threw open a window and scattered five years of work onto the dirty snow below.

Did Lee really intend to destroy To Kill a Mockingbird? We'll never know. Fortunately, in the next moment, she called her editor. J.B. Lippincott's formidable Tay Hohoff promptly sent her outside to gather all the pages back -- thus rescuing 'To Kill a Mockingbird' from the slush.

The novel had its origins in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama -- the small, Southern town that the fictional Maycomb is based upon. Her father's unsuccessful defense of a black man and his son accused of murder, in addition to the Scottsboro Boys trials and another notorious interracial rape case, helped to shape Lee's budding social conscience and sense of a dramatic story.

"Along with his legal practice, Lee's father published and edited the town newspaper. His regard for the written word impacted Lee's sensibility as surely as his respect for the law. Lee would name her idealized vision of her father after Titus Pomponius Atticus, a friend of the Roman orator Cicero renowned as, according to Lee, "a wise, learned and humane man." For a long time, Lee called her work in progress Atticus. This arguably marked an improvement over her first title, Go Set a Watchman, but once she fastened on To Kill a Mockingbird she did not look back.

"Lippincott finally published the book on July 11, 1960, by which time an unprecedented four national mail-order book clubs had already selected it for their readers. The first line of the Washington Post's review echoed many similar notices that praised the novel for its 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."

"Eighty weeks later, the novel still perched on the hardcover bestseller list. During that time, it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the hearts of American readers. One can't help wondering how literary history might have been different had Harper Lee thrown her manuscript out the window on a slightly windier night.

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By Valerie Strauss  | July 11, 2010; 9:56 AM ET
Categories:  History, Literature, Reading  | Tags:  50th anniversary and mockingbird, anniversary of to kill a mockingbird, atticus finch, boo radley, dill, harper lee, harper lee and to kill a mockingbird, harper lee's novel, jem, literature, scout, to kill a mockingbird, to kill mockingbird's 50th anniversaity  
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Comments

Truman Capote or Harper Lee a good writer needs to bring up controversies.

Posted by: twayneb | July 9, 2010 11:03 PM | Report abuse

Just a commentary on how society has changed since publication: I recently had to explain to a high school class reading the novel why Atticus's charge that Mayella Ewing was attracted to Tom Robinson so enraged Bob Ewell.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 10, 2010 7:34 PM | Report abuse

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