Fifty years ago, Harper Lee had the kind of success that most writers only dream about: Shortly after her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published on July 11, 1960, it hit the best-seller lists. In 1961, it won a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1962, it was made into an Academy Award-winning film. It has never gone out of print.
Lee stepped out of the limelight and stopped doing interviews years ago — and she never wrote another book. Still, her influence has far outlasted most writers of her generation.
For the high-schoolers reading To Kill a Mockingbird today, America is a very different place than it was when Lee wrote her novel 50 years ago. Lee's story of Scout Finch and her father, Atticus — a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man unjustly accused of rape — came out just as the nation was fighting over school desegregation.
Today, in a 10th grade English class at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., students of many different races and ethnicities are studying the book together. Their teacher, Laurel Taylor, says that the story still resonates — and with students of all backgrounds.
"Trying to find your identity and realizing that your society doesn't always tell you the right thing" is a particularly profound message for teens, Taylor says. "Sometimes you have to go against what everyone else says to do the right thing. All that kind of resonates no matter where you come from."
Doing The Right Thing
When To Kill a Mockingbird was topping best-seller lists in 1960, protesters were organizing sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters across the South. The civil rights movement was well under way.
Joanne Gabbin, a professor of English at James Madison University in Virginia, grew up in the 1950s and '60s. She was just a child when she saw a photograph of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American teen who was viciously murdered after he reportedly whistled at a white woman.
"I was traumatized as a child by the whole thought of racism," Gabbin says. "And the fact that children weren't safe in this country ... [simply] because of the color of their skin."
Gabbin read To Kill a Mockingbird when she was 17, and says that for her, it was a pivotal book. In Tom Robinson, the African-American man unjustly accused of rape, she saw not a victim, but a hero. He reminded her of her father and grandfather — African-American men who put up with untold humiliation in order to take care of their families. Atticus Finch gave her hope that there really were white people who would do the right thing — and she believes the book may have helped to make that a reality.
"People who were determined to keep black people down ... were not going to be reading this book in the first place and were not going to be influenced," Gabbin says. "But I think those people who were moderate, who were more liberal, when they got to read To Kill a Mockingbird, they probably wanted to identify with the courageous character of Atticus Finch."
A New Way To Think About Race
When the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962, the character of Atticus became forever entwined with the actor who portrayed him, Gregory Peck. But whether you first encountered him on page or on screen, Atticus was unforgettable — a modest man of great integrity, he managed to impart his wisdom without being too preachy.
"There's been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn't do much about defending this man," he tells his daughter, Scout, in the 1962 film adaptation. "If I didn't, I couldn't hold my head up in town. I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do somethin' again."
The relationship between Atticus and his 6-year-old daughter is the emotional heart of the book. For many readers — and for many female readers in particular — feisty, fearless Scout is the most memorable character.
"The story of Scout's initiation and maturing is the story of finding out who you are in the world," says author Mary McDonagh Murphy. "And at the same time, the novel is about finding out who we are as a country."
Murphy's new book, Scout, Atticus & Boo, is based on interviews about To Kill a Mockingbird with well-known writers, journalists, historians and artists. Murphy says the novel, narrated from a child's point of view, gave white people, especially in the South, a nonthreatening way to think about race differently.
"The book is structured with all these indelible characters," Murphy says. "The ending is not this triumphant good over evil ... I mean there's real moral ambiguity to what happened. It all combined to allow them to question the moral order of things."
The questions raised by the book were part of a conversation that echoed around the country. It's a conversation that is still going on, and the book endures because people can relate to it in so many different ways.
"It's about race, it's about prejudice, it's about childhood, it's about parenting, it's about love, it's about loneliness — there's something for everyone," Murphy says.
To Kill a Mockingbird didn't change everyone's mind, but it did open some. And it made an impression on many young people who, like Scout, were trying to get a grip on right and wrong in a world that is not always fair.