Happy Birthday, Harper Lee!

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

to kill a mockingbir

Above is one of my favorite passages from my favorite book. Sunday is Harper Lee’s birthday. In case you live under an illiterate rock, Ms. Lee is the author of one of the finest novels ever written in the English language, To Kill a Mockingbird. I am no journalist, I do not have to be impartial. I am only a writer, and I have to tell the truth. Sometimes, critics and professor’s claim a book is a “must-read” or a “pivotal point in literature,” and after picking up that book I want to hunt down that critic and punch that professor in the face. This time, however, I have made my own conclusion, after having read many books written in English, and I stand by what I said. I loved this the first time I read it, in high school, and I love it even more as an adult. Here is the link and below is the blurb:

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

A lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee’s classic novel–a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with rich humor and unswerving honesty the irrationality of adult attitudes toward race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence, and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina and quiet heroism of one man’s struggle for justice–but the weight of history will only tolerate so much.

One of the best-loved classics of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird has earned many distinctions since its original publication in 1960. It has won the Pulitzer Prize, been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than forty million copies worldwide, and been made into an enormously popular movie. It was also named the best novel of the twentieth century by librarians across the country (Library Journal).

I find the story behind the writing of the book as fascinating as the book itself. Harper Lee moved to New York in 1949 at the age of 23. She worked as a ticket agent for an airline and wrote stories. She managed to find an agent for her short stories (you could still do that back then) and reunited with her childhood friend, Truman Capote, who had begun his rise to fame. He was the inspiration for the character Charles Baker Harris, or Dill, the child from a broken home that was shuttled from relative to relative and who famously said “I’m little, but I’m old.”  She also made friends with a broadway composer Michael Brown and his wife, Joy. Having just come into some money, the Brown’s wanted to help her and gave her a year’s salary with the note that said “You have one year off from your job to write what you please. Merry Christmas.” And so it began. It took her a year to write the first draft.

another to kill a mockingbird

The book started off as a series of short stories, but with a further two years of editing, along with guidance from Tay Hohoff, an editor, she sculpted it into the creature it is now. Something of the short story remains within the pages, especially at the beginning. We meet up with Scout, the main character, and her brother, Jem, being raised by their widowed father. Scout is a precocious tomboy, who seems to have learned to read through osmosis. We join this brother and sister just before their age difference (at 6 and 11) really becomes apparent. Enter Dill, who proposes to Scout almost right away, then runs off with her brother to do boy things, and you’ve got an interesting triangle. Despite their differences, and Jem’s dignity, they manage to have plenty of adventures. And of course, much of that has to do with Boo Radley.

The Radley place fascinated Dill. In spite of our warnings and explanations it drew him as the moon draws water, but drew him no nearer than the light pole on the corner, a safe distance from the Radley gate.

Reading this is almost like two stories. I once made an aunt angry because I was reading it out loud to some young kids. However, the beginning is far more child friendly than the middle and end – and there was no way we would come to anything of an adult nature in a single afternoon. The really meaty plot deals with the deep seated racism of the old south. Tom Robinson, a black man, is accused of raping a white girl. This nearly tears the town of Maycomb in two. Decent folks are glad to see the Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, is trying to do right by him. Others are angry that he is doing his job, rather than just brushing the whole thing under the carpet and simply making him plead guilty. It doesn’t matter much that the accuser’s family lives in filth at the edge of the dump and lives off the county. In normal circumstances, everyone thinks less of them than the dirt between their toes. However, the decent people aren’t exactly standing up to be counted or shouting down the old guard who want to intimidate Atticus into dropping the case. When Scout confronts her father about this, he gives her an eloquent answer.

“Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…” (Scout)

“They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions,” said Atticus, “but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” 

Boo Radley is the other plotline. In some ways, I think he is the spectre of white privilege: a boy who did some terrible things running wild with his friends, and yet rather than be held accountable, his father is allowed to decide what is to be done with him. He brings Boo home and according to Scout, he is never seen again. There, he descends into boogeyman status. If he wasn’t mad before he was shut up by his ultra-conservative, religious parents, he was driven there.

Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him. People said he went out at night when the moon was down, and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Any stealthy, small crimes committed in Maycomb were his work. Once the town was terrorized by a series of morbid nocturnal events: people’s chickens and household pets were found mutilated; although the culprit was Crazy Addie, who eventually drowned himself in Barker’s Eddy, people still looked at the Radley place, unwilling  to discard their initial suspicions.

This book has it all. A study of morals. The painful steps between childhood and adolescence. A boogeyman. A hero. A villain. High, courtroom drama. Beautiful language, wrapped up in Southern Gothic twang as thick as honey and butter between two halves of a buttermilk biscuit. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’d love to hear what you think of it in the comments.

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4 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Harper Lee!

  1. This is one of my favorite books too, and favorite films. I don’t think another writers work has ever been so truely translated to film. What I love most about the book is how clearly even the minor charecters are drawn, how each has their scene and moves on, not to be forgotten. Some of my favorite lines are seeming throwaways, like when Atticus observes of Bob Ewell that naming boys after Southern generals makes for hard drinkers. Thank you for the great piece.

    • Thank you so much! I also had trouble getting down to just a few quotes. There are so many delicious little snippets of description. My favorite of all, and the one I have appropriated for myself: I was weary from the day’s crimes. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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