To Kill A Mockingbird Turns 50
They seem to have always been with us, Scout and Atticus and Boo Radley, the cherished and enduring characters of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. This summer--on July 11, to be precise--they turn 50.
Published in 1960, the book is a deceptively simple tale of a 9-year-old tomboy whose world is up-ended the summer her father, a Southern lawyer, defends a black man falsely accused of rape. It became an instant classic.
"There are not many great novels everyone, from 12 to 102, can read with satisfaction and enjoyment," says Dana Gioia, a poet and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. "To Kill a Mockingbird is one of that select company."
Let the Festivities Begin
To mark the half-century milestone, cities throughout the nation are throwing Mockingbird parties, ranging from simple readings to full-scale celebrations lasting for days and even weeks. Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala., is ground zero for the festivities. The city has plans for a marathon live reading of the novel, a series of group discussions, themed tours of the town, and cocktail parties (featuring the local specialty drink, Tequila Mockingbird) all culminating with a birthday party for the book held on the courthouse lawn.
Despite admirers' fervent hopes, locals realize its unlikely the reclusive 84-year-old Lee will attend. Officials at HarperCollins, which publishes the book, agree, saying that since Lee rarely grants interviews, they don't expect her participation.
HarperCollins is doing all it can to give fans a chance to express their devotion to Mockingbird, which has become a cultural touchstone. Events in major cities such as Denver, New York, Houston, Oakland, New Orleans and Toronto are expected to draw thousands of participants. Smaller towns like Oskaloosa, Ia., Wayzata, Mn., and Oxford, Miss., are hosting celebrations, too. (A full listing of events and links is here: tokillamockingbird50year.com.) And yes, there's a Mockingbird Facebook page, too.
Popular Book, Reclusive Author
To Kill a Mockingbird, the only book Harper Lee ever wrote, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and has sold more copies than any other 20th century novel. Luminaries like Tom Brokaw (who reads from the book on July 11 at a celebration in Bozeman, Mont.) and Oprah Winfrey (who tried and failed to get Lee to appear on her show) list the novel among their all-time favorite books. The film version, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, won a trio of Academy Awards.
Interest in the book spiked in 2005 in the wake of the biopic Capote, the hit film about Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote. It received another boost when Mockingbird, the first full-length biography of Lee, was published the following year.
Around that same time, Lee, who famously refuses to give interviews or even comment on her novel, began to make annual appearances to honor high school students in Tuscaloosa, Ala., site of the University of Alabama's Honors College, which sponsors an annual essay contest for the state's high schools. In 2008, Lee attended the ceremony in Washington, D.C., and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, though she declined to speak at the event.
Let's Get This Party Started
Earlier this year, author Mary McDonagh Murphy kicked off the celebratory fervor with the publication of Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird. She notes in the introduction that this American classic sells nearly a million copies every year--hundreds of thousands more than The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby or Of Mice and Men. And to add a note of irony to all this bliss, To Kill a Mockingbird consistently ranks among the top 100 most frequently banned books in the United States, sharing that distinction with The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Call of the Wild by Jack London.
In 2006, while serving as NEA chairman, Gioia launched The Big Read, the largest reading program ever backed by the federal government. To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the two most popular books among participating communities. (The other is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.)
"Mockingbird is an inspirational book with several unforgettable characters, and even though there is a sad ending, it has an uplifting theme," Gioia says. "It gives you the gift of an absolutely exemplary father figure, and generations of kids have fallen in love with Atticus Finch."
For fans who would like the Mockingbird celebrations to continue, Gioia has some good news. "The U.S. Postal Service plans to issue a stamp in the Legends of Hollywood series honoring Gregory Peck," he says. "At the request of Peck's family, he is being depicted wearing glasses, as Atticus Finch."
SecondAct contributor Veronique de Turenne is a writer and blogger who lives in Southern California.
More Info: Mockingbird Online
Listen: Dana Gioia narrates a radio discussion guide that features David Baker, Robert Duvall, Horton Foote, Charles J. Shields, Curtis Sittenfeld, Elizabeth Spencer, Anne Twomey, and Sandra Day O'Connor.
Author: Visit Harper Lee online.