To Kill A Mockingbird – still acclaimed after 50 years

Exactly 50 years ago, on July 11, 1960, the best-selling novel To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee was published in the USA by JB Lippincott. Today is therefore an important anniversary for a highly acclaimed and extraordinarily popular work of fiction, which is being celebrated in America and the UK.

There are different activities in Monroeville, Alabama, hometown of the author, at the University of Alabama, on the BBC television, in British newspapers, and at special occasions in the town where she lives. The BBC went there to pursue the book, its society and its background, if not its author. Not the author because the famous Harper Lee will not be involved or in attendance at any of these events. And it was always expected that she would choose not to attend, because she has avoided public attention, public appearances, speeches and discussions of the book, and for the past several decades has lived a quiet, reclusive life.

This means there are two very famous, critically acclaimed and popular American novelists who have chosen to live in similar self-exile, since JD Salinger, author of the equally successful literary work, The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, became a recluse for the rest of his life some time after the widely celebrated publication of the novel. But why would two of the most sought after writers in America in the second half of the twentieth century so pointedly avoid contact with a society that they so accurately represented in fiction that the world was eager to champion them and hear more from them?  Harper Lee, in particular, has been reported as wanting to have no contact with the contents of her book, and is supposed to have agreed to give interviews on condition that it would not be mentioned. While she has accepted public honours at which she agreed to appear it has always been on condition that she will not give speeches.  There have, of course, been the usual speculations.

Another interesting fact about the two is that their greatness was deservingly achieved from the production, in each case, of just one novel. While Salinger did publish other works before and after, his acclaim was earned by the single achievement of The Catcher in the Rye.  In the case of Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird is her only novel; she has published only a few minor essays and her silence was more pronounced after the great success of the novel.

The story, set in the American South, is narrated by the tom-boy Gem Finch, known as “Scout”, and is about her father, the small-town lawyer Atticus Finch who courageously defended a black man in a court case in a backward, race-prejudiced segregated society. In so doing he earned the wrath of the white community and put himself and his children in real danger. To Kill A Mockingbird rocketed to immediate success as soon as it was released and has been a popular favourite ever since, while at the same time being critically celebrated.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was made into a highly successful film nominated for the Academy Awards and for which leading actor Gregory Peck won the Oscar for Best Actor in his role as Atticus.

Then even after so many years in seclusion shying away from public attention, the book remained very much in the public domain winning accolades for its author. In 2007 she was recognised by the President of the United States who presented her with The Presidential Medal of Freedom of the United States, a very high ranking national award for her contribution to literature. She went to the White House to receive it. She has also received Honorary Doctorates from universities which she has accepted without giving any acceptance speeches.  Meanwhile the book has been reported as selling more than 30 million copies, 40 million according to journalist Sharon Churcher, and has been reprinted several times, often on the best sellers list since it first appeared. Churcher’s statistics also say it has been translated into nearly 50 languages.

It is acknowledged that To Kill A Mockingbird is autobiographical with many real characters fictionalised in it, including Scout, herself, who narrates the story and is a replica of the author Nelle Harper Lee. Her real father Amasa Coleman Lee, was a respected lawyer — as is her older sister — and Atticus Finch was modelled after him. Harper Lee’s mother’s maiden name was Finch.  The mysterious character Boo Radley was also a real reclusive character who lived in Lee’s neighbourhood. The small-town society with its racial issues was so accurately reproduced in the novel that it was ill-received by some members of that society resulting in hate mail being sent to the writer.

Among the speculation about Harper Lee’s withdrawal is a report that she was herself shocked by the intensity of the autobiographical details that she, partly unconsciously, reproduced in the plot. Naturally shy and a private person, her stepping back from the limelight could be a kind of reactive self-protection, avoiding the world’s gaze to ward off further probing into her private life and past existence that would surely follow in interviews and questions.  Chronically unable to deal with that, she banished occasions that might cause her to have to face such questions.  Churcher’s account is that many of the situations revealed in the novel were painful memories that Harper Lee would prefer to forget and therefore shrank away from discussions of the book because they would force her to relive disturbing reminders of her childhood and disturbing realities about her society. From childhood she was not a happy person and celebrity circuits would not suit her personality.

The story has a lot to do with the law and lawyers.  Apart from her father and sister, Lee was also to become a lawyer, and studied law for three years at the University of Alabama before discontinuing, concentrating on writing afterwards. But life in Monroeville, a segregated town which supported racial inequality, could not have been happy for her.

In the book, the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama is not happy for Atticus who is moved by a deep sense of humanity, tolerance and a decent life for all. He is a very principled character who is governed by conscience, balancing a respect for the rule of law with his own sense of what is right, feeling that what is right for him and his children ought to be right for the society and tries to manage his affairs and his behaviour in that way.

This character is also very preoccupied with setting the best examples for his children and this is one of the reasons he takes on the defence of the Black underdog Tom Robinson who was innocent but who had practically no chance of acquittal in the unjust court of his home town.  But he insists that his family must have the courage and moral sense to defend justice, to respect the Blacks and reject the institutionalised racism of their society.  The novel uses this humane, enlightened, principled white attorney as a foil through whom the ills of the American South are revealed.  The work is critically acclaimed because it does this effectively and unobtrusively through the narrative and limited consciousness of the little girl.

The accomplishments of this fictionalised social expose are even better highlighted because of other subtle techniques such as the function of the mysterious Boo Radley.  Throughout the novel he hovers on the periphery as a character who is not seen but who the children approach with extreme caution – a mixture of curiosity, awe, admiration and fear. He seems an unnatural recluse bordering on insanity and capable of harm. Yet in the end just as mysteriously as he exists through the narrative he saves the life of Scout’s brother when they confront real physical danger from their enemies.  Very effectively, it turns out the social outcast on the fringe of society who is suspected of insanity and potentially violent proves to have been a protector of the children who intervenes at the right moment to rescue them from those in the mainstream of the society considered sane and normal. It is a comment that the regular accepted behaviour of the people in the town is really abnormal and harmful.

It is for these kinds of reasons that To Kill A Mockingbird is celebrated. It has remained relevant and important sustaining the interest and attention of the American public and the world without flagging for 50 years. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has had a similar appeal because these two novels came along to tell Americans startling and critical things about their society in ways that they could easily read and understand, put over in unpretentious documents.  Salinger unsettled adolescent isolation in the irony of an unstable, bored, restless and directionless teenage boy in need of rescue whose fantasy ambition is to be “the catcher in the rye” saving children from falling into the promise of futurelessness. The famous character Holden Caulfield takes readers through his own story without understanding it.

Harper Lee, in the only novel she could write, in a singular achievement, which has been a major contribution to the world, captures the details of such a frightening environment that she herself does not wish to be reminded about it.  And given her reclusive withdrawal, neither does she wish to be a part of it.

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