This Day In Writing History
On July 11th, 1960, To Kill A Mockingbird, the classic novel by the famous American writer Harper Lee, was published.
The classic autobiographical Southern Gothic Bildungsroman novel was inspired by actual events from the author's childhood. Harper Lee, born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1926, was the daughter of a prominent lawyer.
Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, once defended two black men accused of murder. After the men were convicted, hanged, and mutilated, Amasa never practiced criminal law again. This took place in 1919, before Harper was born.
In 1936, when Harper was ten, a black man named Walter Nett was accused of rape by a white woman, convicted, and sentenced to death. A series of letters then appeared which contained proof that Nett's accuser had lied.
Instead of being released from prison, Nett's death sentence was commuted to life. He died a year later of tuberculosis. After Harper Lee's father quit practicing law, he founded a newspaper. The paper would cover the Nett trial and its shocking aftermath.
Some scholars believe that it wasn't the Nett case but the case of Emmett Till that inspired Harper Lee to write her famous novel. In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy visiting relatives in Mississippi, made the mistake of flirting with a white woman.
The woman's name was Carolyn Bryant. When her husband Roy found out that a black kid had flirted with his wife, he, his half-brother John Milam, and an unknown accomplice abducted Emmett Till, beat him savagely, shot him in the head, then dumped his nude body in the Tallahatchie River.
Roy Bryant and John Milam were arrested and charged with murder. At their trial, it took an all-white jury just over an hour to acquit them both. One of the jurors later said, "If we hadn't stopped to drink pop, it wouldn't have taken that long."
The murder of Emmett Till would serve as a catalyst for the then fledgling Civil Rights Movement, helping to bring it to prominence and setting the stage for the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
To Kill A Mockingbird tells the story of a black man's tragic fate in Depression era Alabama, as seen through the eyes of the white little girl whose father defended him.
In the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, circa 1936, spunky little tomboy Jean Louise "Scout" Finch lives with her big brother Jem and their widower father, Atticus Finch, a prominent, respected attorney.
School is out for the summer, and Scout and Jem make a new friend - Dill, a boy who is visiting his aunt, who lives nearby. The three children spend their days outside playing and fantasizing about another neighbor, Boo Radley.
As his nickname implies, Boo is a strange and spooky character, a mysterious recluse whom everyone knows of but no one ever sees. As they try to think of ways to get him to come out of his house, the kids wonder if he really is a monster.
Soon, little trinkets begin to appear in the tree outside Boo Radley's house - apparently gifts to Scout and Jem from Radley, though the man never seems to come out of his house.
Scout's obsession with Boo Radley is put aside when a black man named Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman, and her father, Atticus, agrees to defend him. For this, Atticus pays a dear price.
Once one of the most respected and admired men in Maycomb, Atticus quickly becomes the most hated man in town. Scout and Jem are taunted by the other children, who call their father a "nigger lover."
After shaming a lynch mob into backing off, Scout, Jem, and Dill secretly watch the trial from the colored section of the courtroom.
Atticus believes that Tom Robinson's accuser, Mayella Ewell, and her father, Bob - a violent, alcoholic racist - are lying. During the trial, Atticus exposes the truth. The lonely, abused Mayella flirted with Tom and got caught by her father.
After beating his daughter, Bob Ewell forced her to accuse Tom Robinson of rape in order to save face. He couldn't allow his friends and neighbors to think that his daughter would flirt with a black man.
Despite the truths revealed in court, the all-white jury still convicts Tom Robinson of rape. The conviction causes Atticus and Jem to lose faith in the American justice system. Later, Tom is shot and killed when he tries to escape from prison.
Even though he won in court, Bob Ewell, furious with Atticus Finch for exposing his daughter, spits in the lawyer's face. In the novel's memorable climax, a drunken, enraged Bob Ewell attacks Scout while she and Jem are walking home from a school Halloween pageant.
Jem tries to save his little sister and gets his arm broken. Suddenly, a man appears out of the shadows and attacks Bob Ewell, stabbing him to death with his own knife. The children's savior is none other than Boo Radley.
The strange, silent man scoops Jem up in his arms and carries him home. The sheriff is called, and he and Atticus argue about how to handle Bob Ewell's death. He convinces Atticus that justice would be best served by declaring Ewell's death an accident.
Though it would receive rave reviews and sell over 30,000,000 copies, Harper Lee never expected her novel to be a success. She said:
I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.
Lee was stunned when her novel won her a Pulitzer Prize. Two years after it was published, To Kill A Mockingbird was adapted as a highly acclaimed feature film.
Featuring an Academy Award winning screenplay by playwright Horton Foote, and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch (he won for Best Actor) and in an amazing performance, eight-year-old Mary Badham as Scout Finch, it's considered one of the all time great movies.
A staple of study for eighth grade English classes, (where I first read it) To Kill A Mockingbird has faced censorship battles due to its depictions of rape and use of racial epithets.
Scholars - and the author herself - argue that the novel's depiction of a black man suffering at the hands of ignorant, racist white Southerners is the real reason why some people want the book banned from the classroom.
In 2003, a rumor began spreading that To Kill A Mockingbird was written not by Harper Lee, but by her childhood (and lifelong) best friend, legendary writer Truman Capote, whom the character of Dill was based on.
An Alabama newspaper had quoted Capote's biological father, Archulus Persons, as stating that Capote had written "almost all" of Lee's novel.
Three years later, the rumor was discredited by a letter written by Capote himself that was donated to Monroeville's literary museum.
In this letter to a neighbor, Capote mentioned that his old and dear friend Harper Lee was writing a book that would soon be published. Capote's letter was corroborated by extensive notes between Lee and her editor at the Lippincott publishing house.
Overwhelmed by the reception of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee would never write another novel. She's still with us at the age of 86, and still receives awards. In 2006, she received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame. A year later, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Quote Of The Day
"Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself. It's a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent." - Harper Lee
Today's video features Professor Elwood Watson of Eastern Tennessee State University giving a lecture on the impact and legacy of Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, in celebration of the novel's 50th anniversary in 2010. Enjoy!