Sunday, July 11, 2010

Remembering My Favorite Novel

by Dee Newman

When I was ten, a childhood friend tried in vain to show me how good he was with a slingshot. Following several attempts the tin can that he was trying to hit (placed a good twenty feet away) remained up-right. On receiving, I must admit, some derisive laughter from me, he handed me the Y-shaped weapon and challenged me to do better. Bending down, I carefully selected several small stones at my feet. Placing one in the webbing, I pulled back on the old rubber tubing and let it fly. Believe me, my friend was no more astonished than I was when the stone toppled the tin can from its perch.

Suddenly, a mockingbird flew by and landed on a nearby tree limb. “Can you hit that?” my friend defiantly inquired.

Unthinkingly, I place another stone in the webbing and pulled back on the old rubber tubing. The year I learned “it is a sin to kill a mockingbird” was 1954, fifty-six years ago this summer.

Fifty years ago, today, on July the eleventh, 1960, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird, ” was published. Though the masterpiece (a tale of racism, injustice, and courage in a small Alabama town during the Depression) was her first and only book, it became an instant American classic. In all these years the novel has never gone out of print, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide. Librarians all across this country have voted it as the best novel of the 20th century.

In chapter 10, the book's title appears when Scott asks her neighbor Miss Maudie about something her father, Atticus, has said:
"I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Miss Maudie replies:
"Your father's right. Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
From the time I first read the book in 1961, it has remained my favorite novel. When the movie was released in 1962, staring Gregory Peck as Atticus, it too became my favorite film.

A lot of great information about the book can be found on The National Endowment for the Arts website. It has a free reader’s guide online that might provide you with a fresh look at a book you may think you know well.

The story of how Ms Lee came to write the book is extremely fascinating. Here are some excerpts from how the Endowment tells the story:
"Any claims for To Kill a Mockingbird as a book that changed history could not have seemed more far-fetched one winter night in 1958, as Nelle Harper Lee huddled in her outer-borough New York apartment trying to finesse her unruly, episodic manuscript into some semblance of a cohesive novel. All but drowning in multiple drafts of the same material, Lee suddenly threw open a window and scattered five years of work onto the dirty snow below.

Did Lee really intend to destroy To Kill a Mockingbird? We'll never know. Fortunately, in the next moment, she called her editor. J.B. Lippincott's formidable Tay Hohoff promptly sent her outside to gather all the pages back -- thus rescuing 'To Kill a Mockingbird' from the slush.

The novel had its origins in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama -- the small, Southern town that the fictional Maycomb is based upon. Her father's unsuccessful defense of a black man and his son accused of murder, in addition to the Scottsboro Boys trials and another notorious interracial rape case, helped to shape Lee's budding social conscience and sense of a dramatic story.

"Along with his legal practice, Lee's father published and edited the town newspaper. His regard for the written word impacted Lee's sensibility as surely as his respect for the law. Lee would name her idealized vision of her father after Titus Pomponius Atticus, a friend of the Roman orator Cicero renowned as, according to Lee, "a wise, learned and humane man." For a long time, Lee called her work in progress Atticus. This arguably marked an improvement over her first title, Go Set a Watchman, but once she fastened on To Kill a Mockingbird she did not look back.

"Lippincott finally published the book on July 11, 1960, by which time an unprecedented four national mail-order book clubs had already selected it for their readers. The first line of the Washington Post's review echoed many similar notices that praised the novel for its moral impact: "A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere 18 ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird."

"Eighty weeks later, the novel still perched on the hardcover bestseller list. During that time, it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the hearts of American readers. One can't help wondering how literary history might have been different had Harper Lee thrown her manuscript out the window on a slightly windier night.

1 comment:

mythopolis said...

Good post! the story of Lee tossing her manuscripts out the window was so amusing. Seems she has been a bit of a recluse over the years. I have had several opportunities to see the story performed on stage. In that it is a morality play, I think it works well as theater. Thanks for posting this homage.