Six Things You Didn’t Know About To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s celebrated book turns 60.

A mockingbird perched on a branch

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Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird went on sale 60 years ago this week. The two-part structure of the novel deals with the Alabama childhood of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and the challenging case taken on by her lawyer father, Atticus. It’s one of the most widely-read books in the United States and a staple of middle and high school curricula. In honor of the six decades that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has been a cultural touchstone, here are six things you didn’t know about To Kill a Mockingbird, its writer, and the award-winning film.

1. The First Draft Is an Entirely Different Book

Lee lived in New York City in the 1950s, working in reservations for British Overseas Airways. Her childhood friend, the writer Truman Capote (more on him later), connected her with an agent in 1956. Lee’s friends supported her for a year so that she could write her book; the novel, Go Set a Watchman, sold to the publisher J. B. Lippincott Company. Editor Tay Hohoff felt the book had promise but also that it needed more work. For over two –and –a half years, she worked with Lee to transform Watchman into the book that would be To Kill a Mockingbird. In a twist that could only happen for a book as famous as Mockingbird, that first draft, Go Set a Watchman, was released as its own book in 2015. HarperCollins, who published Watchman, faced harsh criticism from several quarters for marketing that positioned the book like a sequel rather than a first draft; they drew additional fire for the perception that Lee had been manipulated into allowing the release just a few weeks after the death of her primary caregiver, her sister Alice.

2. Harper Lee, Truman Capote, and Kansas

Truman Capote wasn’t just Lee’s childhood friend; he was the inspiration for the character Dill in Mockingbird. In 1959, as Lee waited for the publication of the novel the following year, she went with Capote to Kansas on a research trip. Capote was pursuing an article on the murder of a farming family, the Clutters. The article eventually grew into Capote’s seminal work, the 1966 book In Cold Blood. Over the years, that trip has taken on an almost mythic status in the literary world. It’s been depicted in two films: Infamous, based on George Plimpton’s book Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career and starring Toby Jones as Capote and Sandra Bullock as Lee; and Capote, based on Gerald Clarke’s biography of the same name and starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. The trip was also depicted in the acclaimed graphic novel Capote in Kansas by writer Ande Parks and artist Chris Samnee.

3. Lee Received Presidential Material

Harper Lee Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (Uploaded to YouTube by C-SPAN)

It’s not unusual for writers to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom or the National Medal of Arts. It’s very unusual to receive both on the strength of one book. For 55 years, Lee had only one novel published (and some argue the validity of Watchman as a novel at all, given its odd draft status). However, it’s a tribute to the impact of the book that Lee received the Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2007 and the Medal of Arts from Barrack Obama in 2010.

4. The Novel Continues to Face Challenges

Despite the novel’s iconic status, it remains one of the most challenged by various groups that want it removed from school curricula or public libraries. It was the seventh most-challenged book as recently as 2017, according to the American Library Association. As early as 1966, the book received challenges on the basis of content related to rape. Despite the anti-racism messaging prevalent in the book, it’s been challenged for containing racial epithets. Mockingbird also draws fire for its inclusion of profanity not related to race.

5. Atticus Finch Set a High Bar

The trailer for To Kill a Mockingbird. (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips Classic Trailers)

Atticus Finch has been praised as a both a literary hero and, as portrayed by Gregory Peck, a hero of film as well. Peck won an Academy Award for his work in the 1962 film. The American Film Institute’s 2003 list, “100 Heroes & Villains” named Finch as the greatest hero in American movies. In 1993, DC Comics writer and artist Dan Jurgens used a scene in Superman #81 to cement the notion that the adaptation of the novel is Clark Kent’s (and therefore Superman’s) favorite movie. Over time, some writers have questioned the lionization of Finch, mainly noting that he takes on a racist in the courtroom, but does little to take on the racism endemic in their hometown.

6. The Mystery of Boo Radley

The mysterious nature of Boo Radley in the novel and film has made him something of a cult character and a shorthand reference for an unseen figure in a narrative. The role of Radley marked the film debut of celebrated actor Robert Duvall, who has since been nominated for seven Academy Awards (winning one for Best Actor in Tender Mercies). British band The Boo Radleys took their name from the Finch’s neighbor. And Bruce Hornsby’s song “Sneaking Up on Boo Radley” is about the events of the novel related to the character.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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