more curious women authors exist in history, and few written works
throughout history have achieved more lasting
recognition than Harper Lee and her monumental masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, a simple story about a rape that
allegedly took place in a small southern town. Lee wrote the book when
she had no other experience with publishing.
Born in Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926, Harper Lee is descended
from Confederate general Robert E. Lee. She was the youngest of four
children of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. Her father, a former newspaper
editor and proprietor, had served as a state senator and practiced law in Monroeville. Lee studied law at the University of Alabama
from 1945 to 1949 before spending a year as an exchange student in Oxford
University, Wellington Square.
In 1949, six months before finishing her
studies, she quit school and went to New York to pursue a literary career. She worked
during the 1950s as an airline reservations clerk with Eastern Air Lines and
British Overseas Airways. In 1959, she accompanied her close friend, Truman
Capote, to Holcombe, Kansas, as a research assistant for his classic
nonfiction "novel," In Cold Blood (1966).
"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." - Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird
was published in 1960 and became an instant international bestseller. In its
first year, it sold half a million copies and was translated into 10
languages. It won the
Pulitzer Prize for
Literature in 1961 and was adapted to the screen the following
year. Lee was 34 when the book was published, and it remains her first
and only novel.
Lee's story unfolds in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s
when Atticus Finch,
a lawyer and a single father, is called upon to defend a black man, Tom Robinson,
who is accused of raping a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell. The setting
and several of the characters are drawn from real life. Finch was the
maiden name of Lee's mother, and the character of Dill was drawn from
Capote, Lee's childhood friend. The trial itself has parallels to the
infamous "Scottsboro Trial," in which the charge was rape. In both
cases, the defendants were African-American men and their accusers, white
"But there is one way in this country in which all men are created
equal - there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a
Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man
the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is
a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States of the humblest
J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our
courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this
country, our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are
created equal." - Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson
The narrator is Finch's daughter, nicknamed Scout, a highly intelligent
and observant youngster. She begins the story when she is six years old
and relates many of the experiences, childhood activities, and events that
befall the peace-filled world of childhood. Her mother has died, and
she tries keeping up with her older brother, Jem, who breaks his arm so
badly that it heels shorter than his good arm.
One day, the children meet Dill, their new seven-year-old friend.
They become obsessed by stories of Boo Radley, a single recluse in his thirties.
As the narrative unwinds, Scout tells her story in her own language, which
is that of a child, but she also analyzes people and their actions
from the viewpoint of an adult.
The first plot tells the story of
the secretive Boo, who is thought by many to be
deranged, and the second involves defendant Tom Robinson. A jury of
twelve white men believe the story of two whites, refusing to look past the
color of a man's skin when they convict Robinson of a rape he didn't commit.
When Robinson tries to escape, he is shot and killed. Bob Ewell,
Mayella's father, is obviously guilty of beating his daughter for making sexual
advances toward Robinson. Ewell attacks Jem and Scout late one night
after Atticus exposed his daughter's less-than-honorable actions in court. The
children are saved when Boo comes to their rescue, stabbing Ewell to death.
story emphasizes that children are born innocent and unbiased, with an
instinct for justice, and only turn prejudiced through socialization.
It also resonates with the reality that, wherever you are, there are people like
Bob Ewell who would stoop to any level before accepting the premise of the equality of man.
"Mr. Finch, there's just some kind of men you have to shoot before you
can say hidy to 'em. Even then, they ain't worth the bullet it takes
to shoot 'em. Ewell 's one of 'em." - Tom Robinson to Atticus Finch
After the success of her first novel, Lee returned from New York to
Monroeville, where she has lived ever since. To Kill a Mockingbird
has been translated into several languages. Lee has been likened
to some of the best of American regional authors, including Mark Twain,
William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and others.
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