Today in Literary History – July 11, 1960 – Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is published

Harper Lee’s beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published on July 11, 1960. The novel is the coming of age story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch and her brother “Jem,” whose principled lawyer father, Atticus, chooses to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman in Depression Era Jim Crow Alabama.

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Atticus Finch has become a byword for decency and fair play and for the adherence to ethical behavior despite the costs. To Kill a Mockingbird was the only novel Lee published during her lifetime until an earlier draft of the novel was discovered in a safety deposit box and published (amid great controversy) in 2015 as Go Set a Watchman, just six months before Lee’s death at the age of eighty-nine.

In Watchman, set two decades later than Mockingbird, Atticus is a less heroic figure and to Scout’s dismay he even flirts with a white supremecist group.

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Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, to which she returned later in her life. Her father, Amasa Lee, was a liberal lawyer and small town newspaper publisher who had himself unsuccessfully defended a black man on a charge of murder.

Growing up, Lee’s playmate was a young Truman Capote, a lifelong friend, who she portrays in the book as the character Dill. Lee accompanied Capote on his research trips to Kansas in the year Mockingbird was published as Capote wrote his masterpiece In Cold Blood.

Mockingbird was an immediate success and won the Pulitzer Prize for the year it was published. It is often taught in school literature courses and has sold steadily to a wide audience for decades. A popular movie version with an iconic performance by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch has also helped to cement the novel’s status.

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I’ve read it several times over the years and admire it greatly. It handles themes of racial injustice and violence, loss of innocence, the price of ethical behavior and mental illness with humour and compassion.

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