Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.
– To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 10.
It was 50 years ago – 11 July 1960 – that Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was first published. Since then it’s sold 30 million copies and become a staple of the school syllabus. It’s a book that, like many parents, I encountered twice – once as a teenager in the sixties, and then again when our daughter read it as a GCSE text and we went together to see a stage adaptation. Glancing back at it again I realise that this is a novel with the power to burrow its way into your soul, and like contemporaneous Bob Dylan lyrics such as ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, plant seeds that sustain a moral perspective towards fellow human-beings that last a lifetime.
Nelle Harper Lee began writing the book in the mid-1950s, at the start of a revolutionary decade for the South. The story is set in the period of her own childhood in the thirties – she was born on 28 April 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, a small, sleepy town which she used as the template for Maycomb, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
– To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 1.
Harper Lee in the Monroeville courthouse
This week, in an excellent documentary on BBC 4, Andrew Smith visited Monroeville to explore the town and see how much it had changed in the half century since the book was written. Although he met many residents who know Nelle Lee well, he failed to meet the reclusive author herself. Like Atticus Finch in the novel, Lee’s father was a lawyer in the town. The court house where he practised turned out to be just about the only building still standing from Lee’s younger days. The photo above shows Harper Lee in the court house in the 1960s; it was recreated in every detail for the film adaptation starring Gregory Peck.
Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird
The witnesses for the state have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court, in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption – the evil assumption – that all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women, an assumption one associates with minds of their caliber. Which, gentlemen, we know is in itself a lie as black as Tom Robinson’s skin, a lie I do not have to point out to you. You know the truth, the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men cannot be trusted around women, black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.
– speech to the jury by Atticus Finch, Chapter 20.
The BBC documentary revealed that among Lee’s childhood friends was the future novelist Truman Capote, from whom she drew inspiration for the character Dill, Jem and Scout’s summer neighbour and friend. Despite these similarities, Lee has always maintained that To Kill a Mockingbird was intended to portray not her own childhood home, but rather a generic Southern town: “People are people anywhere you put them,” she declared in a 1961 interview.
If the book’s setting and characters were shaped by Lee’s childhood, so was the case that is the moral heart of the novel: a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. In 1931, when Lee was five, nine young black men were accused of raping two white women near Scottsboro, Alabama. After a series of lengthy, highly publicized, and often bitter trials, five of the nine men were sentenced to long prison terms. Many saw the sentences as spurious and motivated only by racial prejudice.
The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.
– To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, Chapter 23
In handling the themes of racism and justice, Lee is not didactic: the story remains rooted in the childhood transition from innocence to the awareness of evil in the world of the adults around Scout and her brother, Jem. The first hundred pages of the book present a near-idyllic image of the community of Monroeville: then the huge flaw in the community is exposed. Lee began To Kill a Mockingbird in the mid-1950s, after moving to New York to become a writer. She completed the novel in 1957 and published it in 1960, at the height of the American civil rights movement. So the themes of race and class central to the novel were highly controversial in the racially charged atmosphere of the early 1960s.
In To Kill a Mockingbird Lee places these themes at the centre of an exploration of the moral nature of human beings – as seen through the eyes of the children, who come to a realisation that people who they regard as good can also be capable of acts of cruelty and blind hatred. At the heart of the novel is the relationship between Atticus and his children and his determination to instil a social conscience in Jem and Scout. In offering this moral education regarding justice and compassion, decency and rectitude in dealings with others, his most important lesson is one of empathy and understanding:
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
– To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, Chapter 3.
The initial critical response to To Kill a Mockingbird was mixed: a number of critics found the narrative voice of a nine-year-old girl unconvincing and called the novel overly moralistic. But the book soon became an enormous popular success, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. The film version of the novel, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, won an Academy Award. Meanwhile, Lee had retreated from the public eye: she avoided interviews and published only a few short pieces after 1961. To Kill a Mockingbird remains her only published novel. Lee eventually returned to Monroeville and continues to live there.
In 1993, Lee penned a brief foreword to her book. In it she asked that future editions of To Kill a Mockingbird be spared critical introductions: “Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”