In this year of anniversaries, one that shouldn’t escape attention is the 50-year anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, a story of small-town life in the South that captured worldwide imagination, selling half a million copies in its first year and winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Its enormous success, both critically and commercially, drove its author underground with the comment, “I said what I had to say. Why say more?” She gave her last interview in 1965. Since Harper Lee (real name, Nelle) wrote so beautifully, it is hard to believe that she put down the pen, but remarkably, Mockingbird is her only published novel.
Given that Nelle became such a recluse, it is not surprising that I knew very little about her, save that she made an appearance in the biopic ‘Capote’ as the long-suffering friend of fellow author Truman Capote. They were next door neighbours growing up in Monroeville together, and Truman often claims that he was Nelle’s inspiration for the character of Dill.
Like the majority of first novels, it seems that Mockingbird was semi-autobiographical. The Lee family grew up in a small Southern town. A C Lee, Nelle’s father, was a well-respected lawyer, who also edited local newspaper, The Monroe Journal. (Nelle herself was trained in the law, having studied at Alhambama University.) Her hometown had its local recluse, whom locals claim the character ‘Boo’ is based on. And the town had its share of racial tensions, despite the suggestion that segregation was a way of life that everyone tolerated (“Blacks were servant class and we always got on very well with the servants”). In November 1933, the Monroe Journal reported of a case of a well-respected black man who was accused of raping a white woman. The sheriff said that he feared for the man’s safety, even in jail. And in 1934, the court appointed Nelle’s father – who had never tried a criminal case before – to defend two black men accused of murder. This all sounds very familiar.
In 1949, Nelle moved to New York where she began work as a reservations clerk for an airline. Writing in her spare time, she was then financed for a year by friends, Joy Williams Brown and her husband, so that she could complete the novel she was working on (“Any friend would have done the same.”) They had no idea that the book was to become To Kill a Mockingbird.
Harper Lee’s novel was published at a time when the Civil Rights movement was rapidly gaining momentum, giving rise to the question, was Nelle Harper Lee a Civil Right’s supporter or was the timing of her semi-autobiographical novel simply coincidental? It is something that we will never be sure about as Nelle said little on the subject, save that she was concerned that change would not succeed if it happened too quickly. For some, however, the book was life-changing, a immediate turning point. In 1962, Hollywood had cottoned on and released the film version starring Gregory Peck, bringing the message to a wider audience.
I studied To Kill a Mockingbird for O Level English literature. I have the Pan version with the orange cover, plain but for the title and the message that 11,ooo,ooo copies had been sold. Its pages are yellow, some barely hanging on to the spine. The text is littered with my notes (my writing was far neater then: I can actually still read it), treatment that would have subscribers to Amazon forums chomping at the bit. I can’t remember if they were my thoughts, those of my English teacher, or a combination of the two, but it is clear that we devoured the text. What I am absolutely sure of is that I had no idea of the historical context, and that no one took the trouble to explain this to us in the teaching of the book. It was as if this was irrelevant as far as we were concerned. I was a child (although I would have argued against this at the time), reading a story told through the eyes of a far younger child. I attended a Convent school in a leafy suburb, where only a small minority of pupils were not white. Today the book’s message of tolerance seem more relevant to me. Now is the right time to take it down from the shelf.