Thursday 25 February 2016

To Kill a Mockingbird

Mockingbird courtesy 

Harper Lee chose the mockingbird for the title of her 1960 book because she thought it represented innocence.  However, the incident that moved her to write the book was anything but innocent.  It was the murder of a black boy named Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 which sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926 in the small sleepy town of Monroeville, Alabama.  Like Scout in her famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Lee was the daughter of a lawyer.  Like Boo Radley, the recluse in her book, she had a neighbour who lived in a boarded up house.  One of her good friends was Truman Capote, the inspiration for the character of Dill in her story.  Miss Lee attended the University of Alabama in the 1940's where she wrote articles about racial injustice.  

Harper Lee in Monroeville courthouse courtesy

In the 1950's, Harper Lee moved to New York City where she started writing a novel called Atticus, the name of the lawyer character who defends a black man who has been charged with the murder of a white woman.  By 1957, Miss Lee completed the novel.  Three years later, she secured a publisher, at which time she changed the book's title to To Kill a Mockingbird.  At one point she was so frustrated with her manuscript that she actually tossed in out her New York window into the snow, but her editor, Mr. Lippincott, convinced her to retrieve it.  While Mr. Lippincott was interested in the story, he warned her that it would probably only sell several thousand copies.  

The book was well received by the public.  People speculated about Harper Lee's motivation for writing the story.  Some said that she was motivated by the 1931 case in Scottsboro, Alabama of nine black men accused of raping two white women.  Five of the nine defendants were sentenced to long prison terms despite the fact that many people thought their accusers had lied.  However, Harper Lee would have only been six years old at the time of the Scottsboro case.  

Emmett Till photographed on Christmas Day 1954 courtesy 

It turned out that it was the Emmett Till case that inspired Miss Lee to write her story, a much more recent case.  Emmett, a black youth, had been born and raised in Chicago.  A relative invited him to spend the summer in Mississippi and he agreed.  While his mother warned him that Southern rules were quite different than Northern ones, he said he would be able to manage on his own.  However, after entering a general store and supposedly flirting with a white woman, he was hunted down by the white woman's husband and brutally murdered.  Emmett's mother was so outraged by her son's killing that she insisted that his corpse be photographed and printed in newspapers for the entire nation to see what "Southern justice" looked like.  

Harper Lee's novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. By 1962 it was made into a play as well as a movie, the latter starring Gregory Peck as Atticus.  Miss Lee chose to take a back seat in the movie production.  By 1964 she no longer did interviews with the press.  She withdrew from the public eye, eventually moving back to her hometown.  To Kill a Mockingbird would become a staple in high school English classes.  The novel has sold 15 million copies and has never been out of print.  It was the only book Harper Lee ever had published.

Gregory Peck starred in the 1962 movie courtesy

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