…”Folks call me Dill. I’m from Meredian Mississippi and I’m here to spend two weeks with my Aunt Stephanie.”
To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. It was immediately successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize, and has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters are loosely based on the author’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old.
The novel is renowned for its warmth and humor, despite dealing with the serious issues of rape and racial inequality. The narrator’s father, Atticus Finch, has served as a moral hero for many readers and as a model of integrity for lawyers. One critic explains the novel’s impact by writing, “In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism.”
As a Southern Gothic novel and a Bildungsroman, the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. Scholars have noted that Lee also addresses issues of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the American Deep South. The book is widely taught in schools in the United States with lessons that emphasize tolerance and decry prejudice. Despite its themes, To Kill a Mockingbird has been subject to campaigns for removal from public classrooms, often challenged for its use of racial epithets.
Reaction to the novel varied widely upon publication. Literary analysis of it is sparse, considering the number of copies sold and its widespread use in education. Author Mary McDonough Murphy, who collected individual impressions of To Kill a Mockingbird by several authors and public figures, calls the book, “an astonishing phenomenon”. In 2006, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one “every adult should read before they die”. It was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962 by director Robert Mulligan, with a screenplay by Horton Foote. Since 1990, a play based on the novel has been performed annually in Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee’s only published book until Go Set a Watchman, an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, was published on July 14, 2015. Lee continued to respond to her work’s impact until her death in February 2016, although she had refused any personal publicity for herself or the novel since 1964.
Biographical background and publication
Born in 1926, Harper Lee grew up in the Southern town of Monroeville, Alabama, where she became close friends with soon-to-be famous writer Truman Capote. She attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery (1944–45), and then studied law at the University of Alabama (1945–49). While attending college, she wrote for campus literary magazines: Huntress at Huntingdon and the humor magazine Rammer Jammer at the University of Alabama. At both colleges, she wrote short stories and other works about racial injustice, a rarely mentioned topic on such campuses at the time. In 1950, Lee moved to New York City, where she worked as a reservation clerk for British Overseas Airways Corporation; there, she began writing a collection of essays and short stories about people in Monroeville. Hoping to be published, Lee presented her writing in 1957 to a literary agent recommended by Capote. An editor at J. B. Lippincott, who bought the manuscript, advised her to quit the airline and concentrate on writing. Donations from friends allowed her to write uninterrupted for a year.
After finishing the first draft and returning it to Lippincott, the manuscript, at that point titled “Go Set a Watchman”, fell into the hands of Therese von Hohoff Torrey — known professionally as Tay Hohoff — a small, wiry veteran editor in her late 50s. Hohoff was impressed. “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” she would later recount in a corporate history of Lippincott. But as Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” During the next couple of years, she led Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled To Kill a Mockingbird.
Ultimately, Lee spent over two and a half years writing To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was published on July 11, 1960. After rejecting the “Watchman” title, it was initially re-titled Atticus, but Lee renamed it “To Kill a Mockingbird” to reflect that the story went beyond just a character portrait. The editorial team at Lippincott warned Lee that she would probably sell only several thousand copies. In 1964, Lee recalled her hopes for the book when she said, “I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird.’ … I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.” Instead of a “quick and merciful death”, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books chose the book for reprinting in part, which gave it a wide readership immediately. Since the original publication, the book has never been out of print.
The story takes place during three years (1933–35) of the Great Depression in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama, the seat of Maycomb County. It focuses on six-year-old Jean Louise Finch (Scout), who lives with her older brother, Jem, and their widowed father, Atticus, a middle-aged lawyer.
Jem and Scout befriend a boy named Dill, who visits Maycomb to stay with his aunt each summer. The three children are terrified of, and fascinated by, their neighbor, the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley. The adults of Maycomb are hesitant to talk about Boo, and few of them have seen him for many years. The children feed one another’s imagination with rumors about his appearance and reasons for remaining hidden, and they fantasize about how to get him out of his house. After two summers of friendship with Dill, Scout and Jem find that someone leaves them small gifts in a tree outside the Radley place. Several times the mysterious Boo makes gestures of affection to the children, but, to their disappointment, he never appears in person.
Judge Taylor appoints Atticus to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. Although many of Maycomb’s citizens disapprove, Atticus agrees to defend Tom to the best of his ability. Other children taunt Jem and Scout for Atticus’s actions, calling him a “black-lover”. Scout is tempted to stand up for her father’s honor by fighting, even though he has told her not to. Atticus faces a group of men intent on lynching Tom. This danger is averted when Scout, Jem, and Dill shame the mob into dispersing by forcing them to view the situation from Atticus’ and Tom’s points of view.
Scout, and Dill watch from the colored balcony. Atticus establishes that the accusers—Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell, the town drunk—are lying. It also becomes clear that the friendless Mayella made sexual advances toward Tom, and that her father caught her and beat her. Despite significant evidence of Tom’s innocence, the jury convicts him. Jem’s faith in justice becomes badly shaken, as is Atticus’, when the hapless Tom is shot and killed while trying to escape from prison.
Despite Tom’s conviction, Bob Ewell is humiliated by the events of the trial, Atticus explaining that he “destroyed [Ewell’s] last shred of credibility at that trial.” Ewell vows revenge, spitting in Atticus’ face, trying to break into the judge’s house, and menacing Tom Robinson’s widow. Finally, he attacks the defenseless Jem and Scout while they walk home on a dark night after the school Halloween pageant. One of Jem’s arms is broken in the struggle, but amid the confusion someone comes to the children’s rescue. The mysterious man carries Jem home, where Scout realizes that he is Boo Radley.
Sheriff Tate arrives and discovers that Bob Ewell has died during the fight. The sheriff argues with Atticus about the prudence and ethics of charging Jem (whom Atticus believes to be responsible) or Boo (whom Tate believes to be responsible). Atticus eventually accepts the sheriff’s story that Ewell simply fell on his own knife. Boo asks Scout to walk him home, and after she says goodbye to him at his front door he disappears again. While standing on the Radley porch, Scout imagines life from Boo’s perspective, and regrets that they had never repaid him for the gifts he had given them.
Well ladies and gentlemen; I have devoted myself back to the American Film Institute’s 100 films list yet again. Number 25 on the list is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name and produces one of the best performances of any actor of his generation. During a very volatile time in our history, To Kill a Mockingbird has inspired many to not only see the world differently, but to find the courage to stand up for what is right. I am proud to tell you a little about this Hollywood treasure, AFI’s number 25.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a story told through the eyes of a young girl named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham) and the memorable three years in a small Alabama town during the 1930s. What takes most of the focus during a…
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