Harper Lee was an ordinary woman as stunned as anybody by the extraordinary success of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold,” Lee — who died Friday at age 89，said during a 1964 interview. “I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” may not be the Great American Novel. But it’s likely the most universally known work of fiction by an American author over the past 70 years, Lee was cited for her subtle, graceful style and gift for explaining the world through a child’s eye, but the secret to the novel’s ongoing appeal was also in how many books this single book contained.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was a coming-of-age story, a courtroom thriller, a Southern novel, a period piece, a drama about class, and — of course — a drama of race.”All I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” she once observed.The story of Lee is essentially the story of her book, and how she responded to it. She was a warm, vibrant and witty woman who played golf, fished, ate at McDonald’s, fed ducks by tossing seed corn out of a Cool Whip tub, read voraciously, and got about to plays and concerts. She just didn’t want to talk about it before an audience.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was an instant and ongoing hit, published in 1960, as the civil rights movement was accelerating. It’s the story of a girl nicknamed Scout growing up in a Depression-era Southern town. A black man has been wrongly accused of raping a white woman, and Scout’s father, the resolute lawyer, defends him despite threats and the scorn of many.Praised by The New Yorker as “skilled, unpretentious, and totally ingenious,” the book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a memorable movie in 1962.
“Mockingbird” inspired a generation of young lawyers and social workers, was assigned in high schools all over the country and was a popular choice for citywide, or nationwide, reading programs, although it was also occasionally removed from shelves for its racial content and references to rape.By 2015, sales topped 40 million copies.
When the Library of Congress did a survey in 1991 on books that have affected people’s lives, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was second only to the Bible.Lee herself became more elusive to the public as her book became more famous. At first, she dutifully promoted her work. She spoke frequently to the press, wrote about herself and gave speeches, once to a class of cadets at West Point.But she began declining interviews in the mid-1960s and, until late in her life, firmly avoided making any public comment about her novel or her career.
Her novel, while hugely popular, was not ranked by many scholars in the same category as the work of other Southern authors Decades after its publication, little was written about it in scholarly journals. Some critics have called the book naive and sentimental, whether dismissing the Ku Klux Klan as a minor nuisance or advocating change through personal persuasion rather than collective action.