Sunday, July 04, 2010

'Mockingbird' still singing 50 years later

Events and new reflections mark 50th anniversary of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Sunday, July 04, 2010
By Sally Kalson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Harper Lee poses for Life magazine in the balcony of the old courthouse in Monroeville, Ala. in May of 1961.

Fifty years ago this summer, an unassuming novel about life in a small Southern town entered the marketplace and left an indelible mark on the American heart and psyche.

"To Kill a Mockingbird," Harper Lee's classic -- and only -- book, became a best-seller (it sold a half-million copies its first year) and Pulitzer Prize winner. More than 30 million copies later, it still ranks high on the list of most-loved American books. The movie version starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch holds a similar place in the firmament of films.

Published July 11, 1960, the story of a white lawyer defending a black man on a trumped-up rape charge in Alabama was a groundbreaking work, not only for the racial injustice it depicted but for the essential humanity of its characters.

Atticus, the gentle, principled lawyer; Scout, his high-spirited daughter; Tom Robinson, the man falsely accused; Boo Radley, the town recluse; Dill, the mischievous boy modeled on Truman Capote, Harper Lee's childhood neighbor -- all of them live on in print and celluloid.

"Mockingbird" was a revelation because it read like a true slice of Southern life in the 1930s, served up by a true daughter of the South. Set in the decade of the notorious Scottsboro trials, when nine young black men were wrongly convicted of raping two white women on a train, the novel emerged five years after Rosa Parks touched off the Montgomery bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. Racial segregation was still legal in many places, and the lunch counter sit-ins had barely begun.

Taking the stage at this precarious moment, "Mockingbird" challenged stereotypes of whites and blacks alike. In doing so, it pricked the national conscience and helped set the stage for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also earned Nelle Harper Lee (she dropped her first name for the book) an accolade she never sought: "brave."

To honor the half-century milestone, celebrations are taking place in book stores and libraries across the country, including public readings, movie screenings and lectures. (Allegheny County already had its big celebration in 2003, when the county library association chose the title to launch its One Book, One Community initiative, but a few individual libraries are having events.)

In addition, HarperCollins has released a 50th anniversary edition. It has also published a new book about the book: "Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' " by journalist and filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy.

Ms. Murphy considers "Mockingbird" to be "our national novel."

"I cannot think of another novel that has such indelible characters, a story of suspense, this kind of beautiful writing and also a social message that isn't preachy," she said in a phone interview.

The new book is based on her documentary treatment of the same subject, now making the rounds at film festivals, and includes material she couldn't fit into the movie.

The book has 25 contributors, mostly writers, reflecting on the novel's significance. Among those interviewed are Mary Badham, a non-actor who played Scout in the film; Rick Bragg; Wally Lamb (who wrote the foreward); James McBride; Anna Quindlen; Richard Russo; Scott Turow; Andrew Young and Oprah Winfrey.

Predictably absent is anything new from Ms. Lee herself, who has famously declined interviews since 1964. Now 84, she lives in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., the prototype for Maycomb in the book.

However, Ms. Murphy does succeed in interviewing the author's sister, Alice Finch Lee, 98, a lawyer who still goes to work in Monroeville every day.

"I worked very hard getting that interview, and I enjoyed every minute of it," Ms. Murphy said.

On the perennial question of why Harper Lee never wrote another book, Alice Lee says to Ms. Murphy: "She told one of our cousins who asked her, 'I haven't anywhere to go but down.' "

Another tidbit comes from Ms. Winfrey, who says she had a delightful lunch with Harper Lee but could not convince her to come on her show.

"If you know Boo," Ms. Lee reportedly told her, "then you understand why I wouldn't be doing an interview, because I am really Boo."

Yet Harper Lee has never been a hermit.

"Not giving interviews should not be confused with being a recluse," said Ms. Murphy. "By all accounts, Harper Lee has a normal life and friends. She's not holed up in a house like Boo."

As her friend, the Rev. Thomas Lane Butts of Monroe­ville, put it, "She has controlled her own destiny. She doesn't have a PR person. She doesn't need one. ... I think she has led a happier life and certainly more contented life because she has chosen how she has related to the public."

Something else Ms. Lee told Ms. Winfrey bears noting, and it's something one rarely hears from famous people today: "Well, honey, I already said everything I had to say."

Several people in Ms. Murphy's book remark on the rumors that "Mockingbird" wasn't written by Ms. Lee at all, but by Mr. Capote, or at least with a lot of his help, and that's why she never wrote another novel. To a one, they reject the notion because their writing styles were so completely different. Some say that the opposite was true, because she was the one who went to Kansas to help him research his book "In Cold Blood."

Their friendship was ended by her success. As Alice Lee explained:

"Truman became very jealous because Nelle Harper got a Pulitzer and he did not. ... he got involved with the drugs and heavy drinking and all. And that was it. It was not Nelle Harper dropping him. It was Truman going away from her."

Occasionally, someone will dispute the literary value of "Mockingbird." Ms. Murphy recounts a May 2006 New Yorker article by Thomas Mallon, dismissing Atticus as "a plaster saint" and Scout as "a highly constructed doll, feisty and cute on every subject from algebra to grown-ups."

When Ms. Murphy asked her about Mr. Mallon's comment, Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian Diane McWhorter ("Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution") replied, "Whoever this guy is ... they're not going to be reading his book in 50 years. People are going to be reading Harper Lee in this country as long as they draw oxygen."

Ms. Murphy said that when "Mockingbird" first appeared, Harper Lee's hometown paper made note of it. But it was another six months before Newsweek did the first big story on her after the book had become hugely popular. Other publications sought her out when the film version was released in 1962, with a screenplay by the young Horton Foote.

"She was delighted by the film," said Ms. Murphy. "By then the civil rights movement was in full bloom, and she was being asked to discuss some of the most divisive racial issues of the day."

One of those press conferences was witnessed by a reporter from Rogue magazine, then a counterpart to Playboy and Esquire, and described in a March 1963 story:

Q: When you wrote the book, did you hold yourself back?

A: Well, sir, in the book I tried to give a sense of proportion to life in the South, that there isn't a lynching before every breakfast. I think that Southerners react with the same kind of horror as other people do about the injustice in their land. In Mississippi, people were so revolted by what happened, they were so stunned, I don't think it will happen again.

Q: I'd like to know if your book is an indictment against a group in society.

A: The book is not an indictment so much as a plea for something, a reminder to people at home.

It turned out to be a reminder to the whole nation, and its central messages must hold as true today as ever. Otherwise, "Mockingbird" wouldn't continue to be one of the most-read American novels of all time.

"All these years later, it's never been out of print," Ms. Murphy said.

"That's an astonishing phenomenon for a book that people expected might sell 4,000 copies."

Sally Kalson can be reached at or 412-263-1610.

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