USA TODAY US Edition

Why ‘ our na­tional novel’ still mat­ters

But author Harper Lee is silent on the an­niver­sary of beloved novel

- By Maria Puente, USA TO­DAY

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.

 ?? By Tru­man Capote ?? Book speaks for it­self:
Tru­man Capote, a child­hood friend, took this photo of author Harper Lee. She never pub­lished an­other book, and she lives qui­etly in­Mon­roeville, Ala.
To Kill aMock­ing­bird
By Tru­man Capote Book speaks for it­self: Tru­man Capote, a child­hood friend, took this photo of author Harper Lee. She never pub­lished an­other book, and she lives qui­etly in­Mon­roeville, Ala. To Kill aMock­ing­bird
 ?? By Chip Somodevill­a, Getty Im­ages ?? Rare ap­pear­ance:
Pres­i­dent Bush presents the Pres­i­den­tialMedal of Free­domto author Harper Lee at the White House in 2007.
By Chip Somodevill­a, Getty Im­ages Rare ap­pear­ance: Pres­i­dent Bush presents the Pres­i­den­tialMedal of Free­domto author Harper Lee at the White House in 2007.
 ??  ?? Mock­ing­bird
was an in­stant hit when pub­lished July 11, 1960.
Mock­ing­bird was an in­stant hit when pub­lished July 11, 1960.
 ?? Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Home Video ?? Mary Bad­ham: As Scout in 1962movie.
Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Home Video Mary Bad­ham: As Scout in 1962movie.
 ?? Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Home Video ?? Movie is beloved, as well:
Mary Bad­ham­played Scout to Gre­gory Peck’s At­ti­cus Finch in the 1962 movie, which scored an Academy Award nom­i­na­tion for Bad­hamand a best-ac­tor­win for Peck.
Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios Home Video Movie is beloved, as well: Mary Bad­ham­played Scout to Gre­gory Peck’s At­ti­cus Finch in the 1962 movie, which scored an Academy Award nom­i­na­tion for Bad­hamand a best-ac­tor­win for Peck.

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