Art History Week
For over five decades, it was Harper Lee and her book. Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
, published in 1960, has earned its author generations of readers, worldwide acclaim, a Pulitzer Prize and highest honors from two presidents. It has been translated into over 40 languages and sold more than 30 million copies. It has seen adaptations on stage and screen, both of which have gone on to form their own traditions and receive their own accolades. Through Mockingbird
, Lee has challenged us to consider and reconsider racial inequality, gender roles, the nature of justice, and the loss of innocence. Lee's words are as relevant today as they were when she put them down in mid-century Alabama, and the lessons are still as keenly felt in 2015.
While Lee has written more since then, she has made it clear that Mockingbird
's pages contained everything she felt she had to say. As far as the world was concerned, Harper Lee had written her book, and that was that. It was a fact of the literary world, until last Tuesday. When the news dropped earlier this month
that Lee's novel Go Set a Watchman
would be published in July, the phrase "sent a shockwave" did not do justice to the publishing world's reaction. To understand why, it's important to understand Lee herself, a bit about her life, her writing of her singular masterwork, and what followed over the five decades since.
Nelle Harper Lee - Nelle to her friends - was born on April 26, 1926, the fifth of five children for Frances Cunningham (Finch) and Amasa Coleman "A.C." Lee. She was born and raised in Monroeville, Alabama, the town that became the template for the fictional town of Maycomb, where Mockingbird
is set.To Kill a Mockingbird
's core story involves the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape and murder in Depression-era Maycomb. Robinson is represented by white lawyer Atticus Finch. Despite mounting evidence of his innocence, Robinson is convicted by the jury. The drama of the trial and events surrounding it are told through the point of view of Atticus' daughter Scout.
Despite Lee's insistence that her novel is not autobiographical, it is easy to see echoes of her early life in the story and characters found in her novel. During his time as a title lawyer, A.C. Lee defended an African-American man against charges of murdering a white shopkeeper, charges for which his client was convicted and hanged. The criminal case would be the last of A.C.'s career.
Scout, just like Lee as a girl, is a precocious, strong-willed tomboy, traits that colored Lee's character later in life (although Lee herself disregards those comparisons; she has said she feels closer to the outsider Boo Radley). Scout's best friend Dill is essentially modeled on Truman Capote, friend of Harper Lee's since childhood, and an iconic writer in his own right. Lee would accompany and assist him during the travels and research that led to his groundbreaking nonfiction book In Cold Blood
. Capote shared childhood memories of the same people that would materialize in Lee's novel. Boo Radley for instance, the odd recluse who befriended the children and left gifts in the hollow of a tree, was based upon a real man who lived down the street from where Harper and Truman grew up.
During the course of the novel, Atticus, his daughter and her friends are tested against the combined social pressures of the era, and while the ending is not easy, the lessons are clear, and the novel struck such a chord with readers that it became an instant best-seller. A novel which Lee herself hoped would garner just a small bit of recognition instead became a tentpole of American literature.
As is the case with many works of significant literary impact, Mockingbird
has seen its share of controversy and conflict. When a school board in Richmond, Virginia banned the book in 1966 on grounds of "immorality" due to the use of rape as a plot device, Lee did not mince words, invoking Orwell against her critics: "Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that
To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is "immoral" has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink."
This would not be the last challenge the novel would face. Due to blunt language about rape, racial slurs and profanity, the book is listed among the American Library Association's most-challenged classics of all time
. It is also true that while the book is regarded as an American classic, praise for the novel and its themes has not been universal. Some critics argue that the African-American characters themselves are given little focus for all the novel's themes of racial equality and justice. Interestingly, in the post-Civil Rights era of the early 70s, critics decried the novel for not repudiating the racial prejudices of Maycomb severely enough. Despite such criticisms, the book has been credited with having an impact
on the Civil Rights Movement just starting to gain momentum at the time Mockingbird
In 1968, the novel was adapted by Horton Foote for the screen with the same title, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a role for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film won two more Oscars for Art Direction/Set Direction, and for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium. The novel has also been adapted for the stage in a play produced annually in Monroeville, Alabama with townspeople as castmembers.
While Lee initially enjoyed the fast success and attention that Mockingbird brought, she eventually tired of and retired from public life as her patience for the world of Mockingbird
grew thin. She lived in New York's Upper East Side until returning to her hometown of Monroeville to an assisted-living facility when a stroke left her wheelchair-bound and hearing-impaired in 2007. The move should have allowed her a quiet retirement, but instead
, the last decade has given Lee a parade of legal battles, copyright challenges, problems brought on by ill health and conflicts over memoirs written and published by others.
It is against that backdrop that the recent news
of Go Set a Watchman
, the "sequel" of To Kill a Mockingbird
, has captured the attention and imagination of the literary world, to say nothing of the media. The news has been met with an instant, potent mixture of excitement from her readers, and surprise and skepticism
from those familiar with both Lee's work and the murky and often confusing web of lawyers, editors and representatives who surround her. It is perhaps no surprise that all of these emotions are found in the
town of Monroeville itself, ever watchful on behalf of their "Miss Nelle," and protective of her legacy.Watchman
is set 20 years after the events of Mockingbird
, and focuses on a now-grown Scout Finch. Lee has said that the novel was actually written before Mockingbird
, and her editor at the time was so impressed with Scout's flashbacks of her childhood that he implored her to write a new novel based upon them. That novel eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird
, and Watchman
was shelved for almost 60 years, until now. It is set to be published
on July 14, 2015 by HarperCollins (US).
The details of the book's release, Lee's blessing and the circumstances surrounding this extraordinary situation will probably be talked about
as long as Harper Lee has readers, but as for the book itself? It will be a long wait until summer.