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Why ‘ our national novel’ still matters
But author Harper Lee is silent on the anniversary of beloved novel
Fans of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird honor 50th anniversary of classic story,
Thirty-three years after writing To Kill a Mockingbird, author Harper Lee, who hadn’t been heard from for decades, wrote to her agent, “ I am still alive, although very quiet.” Today, Lee is still with us and still very quiet, deep in south Alabama. But in the rest of America, it’s about to get a whole lot noisier. This Sunday, July 11, will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of Mockingbird, the endearing and enduring story of racism and redemption and growing up in a small Southern town during the Depression. It is Lee’s only book and one of the handful that could earn the title of Great American Novel. “ It’s our national novel,” proclaims Oprah Winfrey. “ It changed how people think,” said former first lady and lifetime book lover Laura Bush at a national book festival in 2003. “ Best Novel of the Century,” according to a poll of librarians by Library Journal in 1999. “ The one book that millions of us have in common,” says Mary McDonagh Murphy, author of a new book of interviews of famous folk talking about how Mockingbird changed them, and changed the country. “ It has ‘ book charisma,’ a term I rarely use,” says Karen Mac Pherson, children-and-teens librarian at the public library of Takoma Park, Md. So, not just any old book.
“ I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”
— Harper Lee, 1964
Set in 1930s Maycomb, Ala. ( a stand-in for Lee’s hometown, Monroeville), it’s the story of upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends a black man falsely accused of rape in a time and place when that could get a man killed. The story is told through the eyes of Atticus’ small tomboy daughter, Scout, and features, among many memorable characters, her neighbor pal Dill, based on Lee’s childhood friend, the writer Truman Capote, who spent his early years in Monroeville. Read by millions, beloved by English teachers and students alike ( which is rare), Mockingbird was made into a film considered as much a masterpiece in its medium as the book ( also rare). There are more than 30 million copies of the book in print, it’s never been out of print, nearly 1million are sold every year, it remains a best seller ( it’s No. 56 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list), and it’s still widely studied in high schools and middle schools across the land. In celebration of 50 years, Lee’s current publisher, HarperCollins, bookstores, libraries and scores of writers and readers across the country are preparing to give Lee and Mockingbird a grand shoutout this summer with new editions, new books, readings, stagings and screenings of the 1962 movie. Miss Nelle Harper Lee ( her full name), 84 and slowed by a stroke, will not be participating — no surprise. She has resolutely refused to play the fame game since about 1964, when, unnerved by the overwhelming public response to the 1960 novel, she went home to Monroeville and closed her door. She had once half-joked that she wanted to be the Jane Austen of south Alabama; now she just wants to be left alone. Not even Oprah could coax her onto her show, although Lee did write a story about learning to read for O magazine in 2006. Lee’s last major public appearance was in 2007, when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House by President Bush; she didn’t say much in public then, either. “ Public encouragement,” she told a radio interviewer in 1964. “ I hoped for a little but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death ( of the book) I’d expected.” Just imagine how she’d view the contemporary media. “ Harper Lee has always been a very private person, and the legacy of her book speaks for itself,” says Tina Andreadis, spokeswoman for HarperCollins. But never mind. Leave her be; everyone will toast her in absentia. Big party in Monroeville Especially in Monroeville, where the county courthouse, featured in the movie, is hosting four days of celebration this week, including a birthday party on the lawn, a marathon reading, silent auctions, a walking tour of the town, and a screening of a new state-funded documentary, Our Mockingbird, that examines issues of race, class and injustice through the lens of the book. It’s one of 50 commemorations HarperCollins has helped organize in bookstores and libraries across the country, including: Former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw will do a reading in a bookstore in Bozeman, Mont. In a Rhinebeck, N. Y., bookstore this weekend, the locals are planning a party featuring trivia, “ mocktails” and music on the stereo by the indie band Boo Radleys. HarperCollins also is publishing four new special anniversary editions, plus Murphy’s book, Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird, which features interviews with Oprah; Brokaw; singer Rosanne Cash; Lee’s sister, Alice Finch Lee ( 98 and still working as a lawyer in Monroeville); and even Mary Badham, who at age 10 played Scout in the movie and was nominated for an Oscar. “ You don’t ( often) get a chance to have a film and a book that makes that kind of impact,” Badham tells Murphy. “ It’s about a way of life, getting along and learning tolerance. This is not a black-and-white 1930s issue. This is a global issue.” Murphy, who also has produced a film documentary of the book that will be shown at film festivals this summer, says Mockingbird still matters because racial prejudice still exists, even though the first African-American president resides in the White House. “ There are very few books where the characters are unforgettable, the story is suspenseful in the best kind of dramatic way, and it has a social message without being preachy,” Murphy says. It encompasses multiple themes: coming of age, tolerance and empathy, fatherhood and hero worship, and the eccentricities of small-town people. It’s also about racism and incest, murder and injustice, fear and ignorance, and the possibility of redemption. “ It was meant to be a gift to her father,” says Charles Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. “ She wanted to write a love story from a daughter to a father, who was a great man in a small town and the model for Atticus.” Like Atticus, A. C. Leewas a lawyer and once defended black men accused of murder. Teachers and librarians continue to be the book’s most fervent fans. “ I think about this book at least once a day — it’s magic, the way she uses language and the characters she creates, there’s a stickiness to them,” says Gary Anderson, an English and American studies teacher ( 30 years) at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Ill., who taught the book for years. “ It’s a great example of literary excellence that is accessible to students and highly teachable. ”
A hit with ‘ reluctant readers’ Best-selling author Wally Lamb ( She’s Come Undone), a former teacher who taught the book for 25 years, says it was rare to encounter students indifferent to the book. “ After the first chapter, they would read it voluntarily, read ahead of the assignments,” Lamb says. “ They’d want to know what happens next. That doesn’t happen often with reluctant readers in high school.” Mockingbird is not without critics. The black characters in the book are the least developed, themost stereotypical, especially the defendant Tom Robinson. James McBride, author of The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, says Lee could have handled the Robinson character better, but he still thinks she’s an American treasure. “ What other writer during that time was willing to take on this subject with the kind of honesty and integrity that she did?” he told Murphy for her book. “ What other white writer? I can’t think of anyone.” Winfrey positively gushes about the book and Lee, and especially Scout. “ You just liked Scout,” she told Murphy. “ You connected with her. I liked her energy. I liked the spirit of her. I liked the freshness of her. I liked the fact that shewas so curious. I loved this character so much.” But Atticus ( Gregory Peck won an Oscar playing him in the movie) can come off as “ a bit of a plaster saint,” says Shields, always reminding Scout that you can’t really know someone until you’ve walked in his shoes. Although it may read as if it just spooled out of the storyteller, Lee actually struggled with the novel for years in the 1950s while working at menial jobs ( airline reservation clerk) in New York. Then some Alabama friends in town gave her a Christmas gift of enough money to quit her job and work full time on the book for a year. A skilled editor helped her turn a series of stories and vignettes into a seamless whole. It was published after she accompanied Capote to Kansas to help him research an infamous murder there that eventually became his best work, In Cold Blood. Lee’s book won a Pulitzer Prize; Capote’s did not, and he was envious, which damaged their friendship. It didn’t help that Capote failed to credit her for her contributions to his book, and failed to deny false rumors that he was the author of Mockingbird. The question everyone asks to this day: Why did Lee not write another book? Shields says some people believe there is another novel but it won’t be published until after her death. Lee’s sister Alice continues to insist therewill not be another book. At one point, Shields reports, one of her cousins asked Lee when she would produce another book. Nelle’s reply: “ When you’re at the top, there’s only oneway to go.” Mary McDonagh Murphy, author of Scout, Atticus & Boo, ismarried to USA TODAY book critic Bob Minzesheimer.