30 May 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird – America’s National Novel – Turns 50

In July 1960 a novel about the collision between childhood innocence and the sometime harshness of life in the American Deep South was published, to little fanfare.  Quickly, however, it became a hit, first domestically and then internationally.  Translated in to over forty languages and still selling at least a million copies each year, To Kill A Mockingbird has become to many the singular American National Novel.

Sorry, Messrs Twain, Capote, Salinger and Hawthorne – you were pipped at the post by an unassuming girl from Alabama - Nelle Harper Lee.

Expect documentaries, readings, discussions, reruns of the (albeit marvellous) eponymous 1962 Gregory Peck film (left with actor Brock Peters as Tom Robinson) and school productions ad infinitum.  Don’t expect one thing though – and that is to catch sight of the Harper Lee, the author of the novel.  She is a lady not for talking.  A lesson that many novelists should perhaps take to heart – that they should be not seen and not heard is epitomised by Lee and seconded only by Salinger.

Harper Lee has effectively vanished.  She never published another novel and is most certainly not to be seen reminiscing about her struggle with whatever on Oprah.  To all intents and purposes she has disappeared off the face of the earth.  However, she is still alive and well.  Now 84 she lives in the town in which she was born, Monroeville, Alabama.

One of the few almost contemporary pictures you will find of her is when she accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the chap who ran the country at the time.  She hasn’t given an interview to anyone for 46 years and isn’t likely to do so now if her past record is anything to go by – despite no doubt the pleas of any number of TV networks, newspapers and magazines.

Perhaps the closest we may get to the real Harper Lee is within the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird itself as it is widely acknowledged to be a least partly autobiographical.

The father, Atticus Finch is modelled on her own, AC Lee and the narrator of the novel – the young and impressionable Scout is thought to be based on Harper Lee (or Nelle, her first name and as she is known to friends) herself.

As interesting is the character Dill in the novel who – in real life – grew up to be none other than Truman Capote (pictured left as a child).  Amazing that two such world renowned authors – and so different both in their writing and their lives – could have been best friends as children.

Capote helped Lee to edit M’bird and unforgivably (and no doubt in a fit of pique at the novel’s success while his own, In Cold Blood, remained partly written) never put people right when they suggested to him that he was the novel’s co-author.

It can only be hoped that in a retirement home in Monroeville, Alabama, there is a quietly satisfied old lady, happy that her one and only novel is still spreading its message of tolerance and humanity to readers the world over.

Additional Image Credits
Gregory Peck and Brock Peters
Truman Capote as a boy