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:
“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?
Oh, yes. He wrote to Detective Dewey with whom he became friends in Kansas while working on “In Cold Blood” and said that Harper Lee, or Nelle [the name used by Harper’s family and friends], “has a book coming out and you must get it. It has a character named Dill in it and that’s me.” He was very much in favor of anything that shone the spotlight on [himself].
Why did the longtime friendship between Lee and Capote eventually sour?
It was jealousy on Truman’s side, disappointment on Nelle’s side. Here was this next-door neighbor of his who never craved fortune or the spotlight and she wins the Pulitzer Prize. So it was jealousy on his side and disappointment on Nelle’s because Truman drifted into a sea of drugs and alcohol and became an undependable friend.
Why didn’t she succeed at producing another book?
I think that you write best when you are passionate about something, and that book was sort of a gift to her father. Her father was disappointed that she had dropped out of law school and gone to New York to be a bohemian. He really envisioned her helping build the Lee dynasty in [their hometown]. She wanted that book to work and she wanted her father to be a hero. And she achieved that. [Also] her support group fell away. And then I think alcohol got in the way.
You describe Lee as a boisterous, brave child. But she seems so retiring as an adult. Has she changed?
I think that Nelle Harper Lee is a very authentic person who has never looked over her shoulder for anyone’s approval. From the time that she was a little girl she stood her ground on the playground and said her piece. This business about being retiring, I think that celebrity was a shock to her. When she became famous, she realized that she had really traded off her freedom and that was not really something that she was willing to give up.
Fifty years after its publication, “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains one of the most well-loved and influential books in American literature. What is the source of its power?
First of all, it’s just a darned good story. There will always be a place on library shelves for books that have a wonderful fictional landscape that we all can enter into. I know people who read “To Kill a Mockingbird” annually as a treat to themselves because they want to go back to Maycomb. Then, secondly, it deals with one of the great challenges facing all humanity, which is getting along with people who are different from ourselves. The last reason the book is going to remain a classic is that it does what all great literature does: It reads you as you read it. It asks you what are your convictions, what do you stand for, could you do what Atticus did? You can’t help but think to yourself, “What would I do if that were laid at my feet? Could I stand up and do the right thing?”
Harper Lee never wrote another book. How do you think she feels about her own career?
[Lee] is at heart a provincial woman from a small town who probably would not have written that book except for the fact that she went to New York and saw the great diversity of people there and how they lived with each other, how day in and day out almost all of them get along. I think that she’s grateful that the scales fell from her eyes and that she found a story, a great story to tell, that was larger than even the one that she thought originated in her own small town. She wanted [to write] something about her dad, she wanted something about Monroeville, and what she ended up with was a statement about what it means to be human. And I think she’s probably pretty grateful.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.