Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird" - her one and only novel?
On why Lee never wrote again
"Two reasons: one, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird, for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again."
---- Harper Lee
On why she rarely gave interviews
"Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool."
---- Harper Lee
On what she said in a 2006 letter written to O Magazine
One of the best novels in American literature and my all time favorite is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. So eloquently written and woven together it is in my opinion the best novel ever written. A story of the south in the 1950s and the racism and prejudice that ran rampant then, this iconic novel meanders along in the life of two children, Scout and Jem, and their loss of childhood innocence and their emergence into the adult world of thinking and understanding.
It also has one of the greatest characters ever created -- Atticus Finch, the lawyer in a southern town that has integrity and a moral compass always pointing north. This character is the embodiment of what a fine attorney is with the moral authority to handle the racist court case that is handed to him. And the good sense and moral authority to teach his children well about the events happening around them.
Lee is known for her 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) which raises the issues of racism she observed growing up in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. It also addresses the issues of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the deep American south.
Therefore, it is also a novel of tolerance and against prejudice of all kinds. It is the only novel Lee ever wrote.
Much of this wonderful novel has autobiographical leanings to it from Lee's own life. She was born Nelle Harper Lee in 1926. She was named after her grandmother (Ellen) whose name is Nelle spelled backwards. She was the youngest of five children born to Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch. Her mother was a homemaker.
Her father was a former newspaper editor and proprietor who also practiced law and served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926-1938. It is from her father that she takes her model for her character of Addicus Finch.
Her father once defended two black men, a father and a son, accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Both were found guilty and hanged. It is believed this incident figured prominently in the novel she would grow up to write.
Lee was a precocious reader and tomboy as a child, and the main character in her novel, Scout, is based on Lee herself. Her best friend, schoolmate, and neighbor growing up in Munroeville was none other than Truman Capote. She based the character of Dill after Capote in her novel.
She graduated from her town's high school and attended the all female Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. She stood apart from the other students in that she focused on her studies and on her writing. She was not attending college to obtain her 'Mrs. degree,' which was the thing to do in those days.
She was a member of the literary honor society and glee club. She was known as a loner and individualist and eventually transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where, surprisingly, she joined a sorority for a while. She continued with her writing there and became a writer on the college newspaper and became editor of the university's humor magazine called Rammer Jammer.
After a year in the program she decided she preferred writing so that summer she became an exchange student attending Oxford University in England. When she arrived home after the summer exchange program, she dropped out of law school and in 1943 at age 23 she moved to New York City to pursue a writing career.
To make ends meet while writing, she worked as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and for British Overseas Air Corp. Also, at this time in New York she was reunited with old friend, Truman Capote, who was becoming a rising literary star of his own in New York.
By November 1956, she finally found a publishing agent had some short stories published in magazines. Then, in December 1956 she received quite the Christmas gift from her agent. She was given a year's wages from him with a note that said, "You have one year off your job to write whatever you please . . ."
She immediately quit the airline job and devoted the year to her writing and by the end of the year she had completed her first draft of her novel. The next two and a half years were filled with re-writing and editing her novel.
The final manuscript was published on July 11, 1960 as To Kill a Mockingbird. Although she worried about how it would be received, she needn't have bothered. It was an immediate best seller and stood up to great critical acclaim. A year later she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the novel.
Today, To Kill a Mockingbird, remains a best-seller and there are more than thirty million copies in print. It also has become required reading in high schools and colleges. Library Journal has named it "Best Novel of the Century."
After publication of her novel and book tour, Lee accompanied Truman Capote to Holcomb, Kansas to assist him in researching his subsequent novel, In Cold Blood.
Since the publication of her novel, Lee has granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances. She has accepted honorary degrees from universities but has declined to speak at any functions. She has gone on to publish a few short essays, but really nothing else.
She did begin writing another novel -- The Long Goodbye, but eventually filed it away unfinished and has never picked it up again.
She felt the film adaption of her novel of the same name in 1962 was one of "the best translations of a book to film ever made." The Academy Award winning screenplay was written by Horton Foote.
She and Gregory Peck, who played Addicus Finch in the film, and his family became great friends and a Peck grandson is named after her, Harper Peck Voll.
By 1966 the novel had become controversial when a Richmond, Virginia area school board pronounced her novel "immoral literature," because the story was based around a rape, and because of the language and profanity in the book, the board ordered all schools to dispose of all copies of the novel.
She wrote a written response to the board and said in part, ". . . .surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird, spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners."
The American Library Association has stated that To Kill a Mockingbird was number twenty-one of the one hundred most frequently challenged books of 2000-2009 because of racial slurs, profanity and the candid discussion of rape.
From then on after the publication of her novel, Lee split her time between her New York City apartment and her sister's home in Monroeville, Alabama. During the 70's and 80's Lee mostly retreated from public life.
Today, she continues to live a private, quiet life. She is now elderly and confined to a wheelchair and is partially blind and deaf and is beginning to lose her memory. Fortunately, through her great novel she will always be remembered as a vibrant and strong writer.
To Kill a Mockingbird
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To Kill a Mockingbird - the novel
The reason this novel has been acclaimed as a great American novel is because of the symbolism of the mockingbird and the themes of racism, morality and social inequality.
We never actually see or come across a mockingbird in the novel, but the symbolism of the bird stands out throughout the novel and Lee goes back to this symbol many times as she weaves her seamless story.
Lee imparts her life lessons and knowledge learned growing up in Monroeville, through her main character, Scout, based on Lee herself. What Lee herself observed, Scout observes in the novel. And, what Lee has learned from her father, Scout learns from her father, Addicus Finch.
First, is the lesson on innocence. Lee uses the mockingbird as a symbol of innocence in her novel. Atticus tells Scout, when they have received BB guns as gifts, you can kill all the bluejays you want, but "it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Scout isn't quite sure she understands so she asks the family housekeeper exactly what her father means. The houskeeper explains that mockingbirds never harm other creatures. They simply provide pleasure with their songs. "They don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us."
So, in other words, to kill a mockingbird is to kill something pure and harmless. What the title of the book means to the novel is to kill a mockingbird is to kill that which is innocent and harmless. Who are the innocent and harmless in the small town of Maycomb in the novel?
Scout comes to learn from her father's many lessons that Tom Robinson, the African - American he defends against the charge of raping a white woman, is the chief example among several innocents destroyed carelessly or deliberately throughout the novel.
And it is the innocence of Boo Radley who saves Scout and Jem from a bloody death at the end of the novel. Scout comes to learn and to understand Boo Radley as a 'mockingbird.' That is someone with an inner goodness that must be cherished and not harmed.
Boo had been an intelligent child ruined by a cruel father. Yet, Boo becomes the most important 'mockingbird' in Scout, Jem and Addicus' lives when he saves the children at the end of the novel. He is the ultimate symbol of good despite his own childhood pain, as he recognizes and saves the children.
Scout observes, "when they finally saw him (Boo), why he hadn't done any of those things, Atticus, he was real nice." And, Addicus responds, "Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them."
Scout is able to realize that Boo likes them and helped them by sewing the tear in the jeans that were caught on the barb wired fence. They realize he is the one leaving them the cute objects in the hollow of the tree. Therefore she sees and learns of Boo's goodness.
Addicus Finch, of course, symbolizes the stallworth attorney, a model of integrity for the legal profession. He is almost seen as a real person. Many attorneys today cite the Atticus Finch character as why they became attorneys. He symbolizes the moral idealism with which we look at the profession.
In fact, the Michigan Law Review has written about the Addicus Finch character, "No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession."
Themes of the novel
One of the most important themes in the novel is the exploration of the moral nature of human beings. Are people essentially good or evil? The answer to that question is not always black and white. Lee weaves racism and the events connected with it to show us the the evil in human beings.
Scout and Jem's childhood innocence is lost by the end of the novel. For the first time in their lives they are confronted with, observe, and experience evil. What Addicus does as a father is teach them that one must incorporate evil and the understanding of it into their perspective of their world.
He teaches them of the threat that hatred, prejudice and ignorance pose to the innocent people, Tom Robinson and Boo Radley. They are destroyed by an evil they are not prepared to encounter in life.
What is unique about the character Addicus Finch is that he is an individual that has encountered evil without losing his faith in the human capacity for goodness and he passes this on to his children. It is Scout that accepts his lessons the best and has an understanding of them. Jem, by the end of the novel, has become disillusioned so much that he has more difficulty in understanding them.
Addicus understands that people are not good or evil - one or the other - but a bit of both, full of good and bad qualities. He appreciates the good and understands the bad qualities. He treats others with sympathy and compassion and is able to see life from their perspective.
He has the moral authority to understand it is possible to live with a conscience without losing hope or becoming cynical. Scout, at the end sees Boo Radley as a complete and full human being and she is the more perceptive of the two children.
Scout has learned to view the world and understand it as her father does. Jem is more disillusioned and becomes more cynical through their experiences.
Another important theme in the book is the importance of instilling a moral education in children. We see the story through the perspective of the children and how they are carefully taught to move from innocence to adulthood which recurs throughout the novel.
Atticus, as father, devotes himself to instilling a social conscience in Jem and Scout. They learn from Atticus that the most important lessons are those of sympathy and understanding and teaching through sympathy and empathy is the correct approach to teaching these lessons. Atticus is an excellent teacher because of this.
He, as a teacher, is contrasted with the school teacher who teaches from her 'correct positions' on the curriculum, but doesn't impart sympathy, empathy and understanding in any of her lessons, and so is shown to be the lesser teacher.
And, social inequality is also an important theme in the novel. The social hierarchy of Maycomb baffles and bewilders the children. The Finches are well-off and at the top of the social hierarchy. Next, come the townspeople, then the ignorant country farmers, represented by the Cunninghams, then the 'white trash' that the Ewells represent and then the African-American community at the bottom of the barrel. These African-Americans are truly better people than the Ewells or even the Ignorant country farmers, but are relegated to the bottom just because of their color.
Rob Ewell, who represents the 'white trash' of Maycomb, makes up for his own lack of importance and place on the social hierarchy by persecuting Tom Robinson and Ewell becomes the ultimate symbol of evil in the novel for this persecution and then at the end his attempt to kill Scout and Jem.
Scout and Jem must begin to confront and understand these rigid social divisions that make up their world by the events that are happening around them and what they experience.
As time has marched on, Lee has been criticized by many because they felt her treatment of racism in Maycomb was not condemned harshly enough. Many feel Atticus Finch simply worked within 'the system' and the racism of the 50's in the south. Many felt his character should have done more for Tom Robinson.
The novel has also been criticized for the marginalizing of the African-American characters. What seems wonderful and powerful to one group of people may be degrading to another group.
I believe Lee wrote realistically of the south and the times (1950's) and that the novel doesn't warrant this criticism at all. Lee portrayed what she observed growing up and the racism of the time and how it was dealt with. We cannot apply another era to her work and then call her work or the novel not well done. This novel has to be viewed through the telescope of the times it was written in, a specific time and how she viewed it all through that telescope.
Perhaps it is her novel that was one factor in the African-American's protesting in the 1960s and demanding their civil rights. Change for African-Americans did come after the publication of her novel so rich in its moral teachings and empathy for the other man.
Update: April 2015. Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird will no longer be her "one and only novel." On July 2015, her publishers are publishing a 'first' novel she wrote, Go Set a Watchman. She wrote this first novel about her character Scout as an adult returning to her hometown for a visit, and submitted it to her publisher, who asked her to improved upon it. Her improvement was her famous and popular novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Lee had always said she would not publish another novel and it is only when she is old and infirm and reportedly not with her complete faculties that the publisher is publishing this 'novel.' I personally do not believe Harper Lee really knows or understands that this book is being published and would not appreciate the fact of its being published if she were in control of her full faculties. It is also being published as an e-book, which Lee repeatedly has said in interviews she dislikes new technology and would never have her books published digitally. I am not at all sure Lee knows what is going on and I think the publishers are taking advantage of an older woman to appease their greed.
Copyright (c) 2013 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved
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