In Which I Shamelessly Geek Out Over All Things “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Harper Lee accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Harper Lee accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Today is a very special day for book geeks everywhere: it’s To Kill a Mockingbird‘s 54th birthday! As you might have gathered already, TKM is one of my most favorite books in the world, so in honor of the anniversary of its publication, allow me to indulge in some useless knowledge concerning the book. 🙂

I suppose it all started with Harper Lee’s father, who bore the outlandish name of Amasa Coleman Lee. Much like Atticus, Amasa was a lawyer and an Alabama state legislator who wasn’t afraid to do the right thing. Also like Atticus, he once took–and lost–a very controversial case, that of two black men who were accused of a white person’s murder. According to some, this trial inspired Tom Robinson’s famous trial from the book (this is probably what inspired Atticus’s first case too).

Besides her father, Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama supplied plenty of other characters who would later show up in her novel. For instance, her next-door neighbor and best friend Truman Persons* inspired the character of Dill Harris. A neighbor of Lee’s whose parents locked him in their house after he was arrested for vandalism sounds suspiciously like Boo Radley. Lee’s mother might have been the real-life Aunt Alexandra (ouch) and last but not least, Scout was based on the author herself, who grew up as a noted tomboy and bookworm.

Lee started writing early on, when her father, who edited a local newspaper, brought home an old Underwood typewriter from his office.** Lee and her friend Truman would spend hours at it, typing up stories they made up about their friends and neighbors. When Lee turned eighteen, she went to college to study law, but dropped out a few years later after deciding to become an author instead. She moved to New York at the age of 23 hoping to find work as a writer, but instead, she found work as a secretary for an airline.

One day in 1956, while still working as a secretary, Lee received a note from some friends which read: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” Believing that Lee was an exceptional author, her friends agreed to support her for one year, giving her the time she needed to work on what would be her one and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. By 1959, the book was ready to be published.

Lee herself wasn’t too optimistic about the book’s future; she told an interviewer in 1964 that she never even expected the book to sell. But to everyone’s great surprise, and especially Lee’s, TKM became a bestseller almost overnight. It was on the bestseller list for over forty weeks, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961, and was hailed by critics all over the country as one of the best novels written in decades.

In 1962, Universal Studios released a film adaptation of TKM, to great acclaim. Lee did not have much input on the script, since she was already busy writing a second novel (which was never published, by the way), but she still was involved in the production of the film and even spent a few days on set. She became good friends with the leading man, Gregory Peck, who later won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus. They were such good friends in fact, that after filming was completed, Lee gave him her father’s old pocket watch, which he carried with him the night he won his Oscar.

If TKM the book was an unexpected success, the movie was a bombshell. Execs at Universal were afraid the movie would fail, seeing as it has no love story and a villain who very nearly gets away with his crimes. There was also the issue of making a movie about civil rights in 1962. But despite their misgivings, the film was a huge success and continues to be remembered today as one of the greatest films ever made. This catapulted Lee even further into the spotlight, and the more fame she tasted, the less she liked it. Eventually, Lee stopped granting interviews. She refused to speak about the book and has not published another book since. She met with a reporter from The Daily Mail in 2010, but you can read for yourself here how disappointing that was. Since the late ’60’s, Lee has spent her life far from the public eye, dividing her time between her apartment in New York and her sister’s home in Monroeville.*** In more recent years, she has taken up residence at a rest home in New York.

Shortly after she finished TKM, Lee was supposed to be working on another novel. It was called “The Long Goodbye,” but unfortunately for me and all of her other fans, she never finished it. Really, she hasn’t published anything since Mockingbird except for a handful of short essays and an open letter to Oprah Winfrey (never mind Oprah. It was a good piece). But as if right now, Harper Lee is still alive (contrary to what I may have assumed) so there could always be more!

And now, for the first Book Geeks Anonymous poll ever!

If you picked “Somebody else,” would you mind telling us who else in the comments?


* Persons would later go on to become an author himself, though he published under the name Truman Capote. No big deal. 😉
** The brand name on Lee’s first typewriter was Underwood. The newspaper editor in To Kill a Mockingbird is named Braxton Underwood. Coincidence? I think not!
*** I know three asterisks is rather excessive, but I had to mention this: Lee’s sister Alice, one of the people to whom TKM is dedicated, is 102 years old! She, like her father, became a lawyer and was still working at the age of 100.


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