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It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird: Harper Lee 1926-2016

By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department

harper-lee_0Harper Lee passed away at the age of 89 last month. She was a literary giant and wrote one of the most famous and beloved novels of the twentieth century: To Kill a Mockingbird. It was only last year that her second book, a predecessor of To Kill a Mockingbird, was published. This book, Go Set a Watchman, was as divisive as her first book was beloved. Many thought that Go Set a Watchman was published without her say-so, and that Ms. Lee was taken advantage of. And the views on race relations and the language used shocked many readers.

The book is so beloved that, according to Variety, Aaron Sorkin will be writing the script for a new Broadway play, adapting To Kill a Mockingbird for the 2017-2018 season. There is precedent: In 1990, a stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel debuted in Monroeville, where it’s performed each May by local actors. The performances take an almost reverential approach, with audiences taking part in order to ritually enact scenes of segregation and justice denied.

Truman Capote

Truman Capote

So why do we love To Kill A Mockingbird so much? Firstly, it’s one of the few books that kids in high school actually like to read. Consider the reading lists, it is a relatively shorter and easier to read book. And even though it’s themes are overt and plentiful, it doesn’t feel like Harper Lee was beating you over the head with themes (I’m looking at you Mr Dickens and your paid by the word description of how the wine and the street represented the Revolution).  Also, it is one of the few books that made the transition to film well. We all picture Gregory Peck when we think of Atticus Finch, and he was the epitome of the thoughtful, kind father we all wished we had. And we all related to Scout, who was an adventuresome tomboy learning about the world at his knee. And finally, as we all now know, the neighbor Dill was based off of a young Truman Capote.

During the years immediately following the novel’s publication, Harper Lee enjoyed the attention its popularity garnered her, granting interviews, visiting schools, and attending events honoring the book. In 1961, her book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.   The popularity snowballed and she began to turn down interviews sometime in 1964; she said the questions were monotonous. She also thought the attention was bordering on invasive and would take away the impact of the book. She was also quite shy all her life. Several times Lee said, once in a phone interview with Oprah, that the character in the book she most identified with is Boo Radley.

Only one year after its publication To Kill a Mockingbird had been translated into ten languages. Through the years, it has been translated into more than 40 languages. The novel has never been out of print in hardcover or paperback. A 1991 survey by the Book of the Month Club and the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that To Kill a Mockingbird was rated behind only the Bible in books that are “most often cited as making a difference”. It is considered by some to be the Great American Novel.48bbe6e4f83767fb9933a723e8f1196d

People celebrated across the United States in 2010 when To Kill a Mockingbird turned 50. A book was even published in honor of the 50th anniversary–Scout, Atticus, & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was full of famous readers writing to Harper Lee telling her how much they loved her book. The 2010 documentary film in the PBS American Masters series Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on the background of the book and the film as well as their impact on readers and viewers.

And to have the second book Go Set a Watchman published in 2015 was a final gift to all of her fans. It was also a surprise, since so many readers had idolized Atticus, to see racist words pop up and find out that Calpurnia had retired. Many book groups are still discussing Lee’s new book. It is a nice legacy for her to leave us. Thank you Harper Lee for your magnificent To Kill a Mockingbird and your surprising postscript novel Go Set a Watchman. The world was better for your presence and your writing gifts.

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