To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and continues to be a bestseller around the globe

Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book To Kill a Mockingbird in 2010, the President of the United States of America, Barrack Obama, said, “It is a milestone in American culture!” In a survey of lifetime reading habits conducted by the Book of the Month Club in 1991, researchers found that it ranked second only to the Holy Bible, “when it comes to making a difference in people’s lives.” Even after 50-plus years of its publication, the book continues to be a bestseller around the globe, selling more than a million copies every year. Years ago, USIS (United States Information Services) had plans to bring out Indian language versions to help non-English readers get the benefit of this remarkable work. To Kill a Mockingbird also won the Pulitzer Prize, and was published as a ‘Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.’ This book contains lessons in human dignity and respect for people, which are fundamental and universal to this day. As a critic noted, “the power of this book has never diminished.”

The iconic American writer Harper Lee wrote such a phenomenally successful novel. Surprisingly, in spite of the incredible success of this book she did not write another book. Indeed it is her only published book.

Colour prejudices

The theme of the book is racial relations and colour prejudices in the southern states — more particularly Alabama of the United States — during the Depression in the early 1930s. Sadly, prejudices of colour and race still survive in America, even though the nation has an African American as President for the first time in its history.

Somewhat surprisingly, Harper Lee never likes to talk of her book, and whenever she agrees to an interview, it is always on one condition, ‘Don’t mention the Mockingbird!’ Surprising, but true! Such is the writer of the book, which continues to make waves around the globe, who avoids company and lives in a modest apartment more like a recluse, sitting on the millions of dollars of royalty the book brought her. This book has been translated into nearly 50 languages and was made into the Oscar-winning 1962 film starring Gregory Peck (who won the Oscar for ‘Best Actor).

Nelle Harper Lee (to give her full name, Nelle was her mother’s name reversed) was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, United States of America. Her father was a successful small-town lawyer and also owned and edited the only newspaper of the town during the 1930s, which had less than a thousand people as clientele. The youngest of four children, she grew up as a tomboy. Sadly her mother suffered from bipolar disorder. (In the book, in which the characters are mostly based on actual persons in her hometown, her mother is the only person not mentioned in it, and the children of the lawyer are told that they had lost their mother when they were kids, thus eliminating any reference to her in the novel!)

The novel, though fiction, is actually based on life in the small town of Monroeville — named ‘Maycomb’ in the book. The hero of the book and movie Atticus Finch (based on Lee’s father) is a lawyer who fights for the rights of the downtrodden and the coloured people in a town where racism prevails like most southern states during those years.

The author herself is part of the book under the name ‘Scout’, who narrates the story in the book, (the movie uses somebody else’s voice) and her brother Jem is also a character. Interestingly, a young boy in a neighbouring family is also part of the book under the name ‘Dil’, who is actually based on the famous American writer Truman Capote. Capote’s immortal classic In Cold Blood created a new genre known as ‘non-fiction novel.’ A raving success, it was also made into a hit movie.

Lee and Capote grew up together as children and later she went along with him as his research assistant on the true life murder case, the story behind his book. Interestingly there were rumours during the period when her novel came out that it was actually written — or ‘ghost’ written — by Capote which he denied, and is certainly not true!

Two stories

To Kill a Mockingbird is made of two stories, one is the coming of age of a teenager, the daughter and her older brother. The second part of the story concerns the father, an attorney who has been appointed by the Sheriff to defend an African American Tom, falsely accused of raping a white woman. This is indeed based on a real case in which her father appeared, defending a black man, and in spite of his brilliant cross examination and presentation, the all-white jury found the African American guilty. This part of the story is kept intact in the novel where the African-American is alleged to have raped a white girl, who indeed has been sexually abused regularly by her father. For a while, the lawyer thinks of going on appeal, but the convict escapes from prison, and is shot by the police while on the run.

Another character in the book is ‘Boo’ Radley, who is locked up in his hut by his father and the kids always go and look in at the door to see what he looks like and when he peeps out, the screaming kids run away, for Boo is supposed to be mentally unsound! In the movie, this role was played by the Hollywood star Roberto Duvall, in his movie debut. This character ultimately saves Jem from being killed by the vengeful father of the girl who brings the rape charge against Atticus’s client.

Lee studied for a brief while in England, and was fascinated by the fiction of the iconic English writer Jane Austen. Indeed, she said later, “In other words, all I want is to be the Jane Austen of South Alabama.” Harper Lee did achieve that ambition, didn’t she?