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On the 50th anniversary of "To Kill a Mockingbird": a glimpse of Harper Lee

Harper Lee biographer Charles J. Shields talks about Harper Lee and the 50th anniversary of her masterpiece "To Kill a Mockingbird."

By / July 9, 2010

Fifty years after its publication, "To Kill a Mockingbird" still sells almost a million copies a year.

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Fifty years ago this month, an unknown young writer from Alabama published her first novel. Today, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” still sells almost a million copies a year and remains one of the most beloved books in all of America’s literary canon. Charles J. Shields, author of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” the only biography of the writer, spoke with Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe about Lee, her life, and her achievement. Here are some excerpts:

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“To Kill a Mockingbird” seems to be closely drawn from actual events in Harper Lee’s life. But is it an oversimplification to say that Atticus was her father?

No, it’s an accurate statement. Her father was a great man in a small town. He was much respected, a partner in one of the largest law firms in the county, a director of the bank, a deacon at the local church, and twice elected to the state legislature, just like Atticus. Although he was more reserved than Atticus. No one could ever recall not seeing him in a three-piece suit, even when he golfed. And I have to say that he was a segregationist. People like him, whose parents had fought in the Civil War, as his had, genuinely believed that people were happier with “their own kind.”

But there were transformative events in his life.

Oh, yes. By the time he was an elderly man, when “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out, he was involved in an effort to redistrict the state to see that blacks were better represented in Alabama.

What about the trial he was involved with as a young attorney?

Lee had been practicing law for only a few years. He was appointed by a judge to defend two black men who were accused of murdering a white man. Now, Lee had never had a criminal case before. But this was fairly typical of the time. This method of doing business in the courts was informally called “Negro Law,” which means that you get a young, inexperienced white attorney to practice on some hapless black client. Some of those trials took as little as half an hour. [Note: The two men Lee defended were convicted and hanged. Lee never tried another criminal case.]

How key was that trial to the writing of “To Kill a Mockingbird”?

It was that trial and one that [Harper Lee] remembered from when she was very young [that she wrote about in “To Kill a Mockingbird”]. That trial gave her the impetus for redressing something that her father felt very bad about, which is that he had participated in a trial in which the decision was a foregone conclusion. Lee was made, against his will, a pawn in a much larger system. [Harper Lee] got her literal facts, however, from a case that happened right in Monroeville when she was a girl in the early 1930s. A black man was accused of raping a white woman. His trial lasted about six hours [longer than expected] because he had a pretty good alibi. He was at work at the brick factory and he didn’t know the woman. [The convicted man] lost his mind in prison and was remanded to a local insane asylum.

Truman Capote was Harper Lee’s next-door ­neighbor and closest childhood friend. Did he ever acknowledge himself as Dill in her novel?

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