To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird
Cover of the book showing title in white letters against a black background in a banner above a painting of a portion of a tree against a red background
First edition cover – late printing
AuthorHarper Lee
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
GenreSouthern Gothic, Bildungsroman
PublishedJuly 11, 1960
PublisherJ. B. Lippincott & Co.
Pages281

To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel by Harper Lee published in 1960. Instantly successful, widely read in high schools and middle schools in the United States, it has become a classic of modern American literature, winning the Pulitzer Prize. The plot and characters are loosely based on Lee's observations of her family, her neighbors and an event that occurred near her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in 1936, when she was 10 years old.

The novel is renowned for its warmth and humor, despite dealing with the serious issues of rape and racial inequality. The narrator's father, Atticus Finch, has served as a moral hero for many readers and as a model of integrity for lawyers. Historian, J. Crespino explains, "In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its main character, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism."[1]

As a Southern Gothic and Bildungsroman novel, the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence. Scholars have noted that Lee also addresses issues of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles in the American Deep South. The book is widely taught in schools in the United States with lessons that emphasize tolerance and decry prejudice. Despite its themes, To Kill a Mockingbird has been subject to campaigns for removal from public classrooms, often challenged for its use of racial epithets.

Reaction to the novel varied widely upon publication. Despite the number of copies sold and its widespread use in education, literary analysis of it is sparse. Author Mary McDonough Murphy, who collected individual impressions of To Kill a Mockingbird by several authors and public figures, calls the book "an astonishing phenomenon".[2] In 2006, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one "every adult should read before they die".[3] It was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film in 1962 by director Robert Mulligan, with a screenplay by Horton Foote. Since 1990, a play based on the novel has been performed annually in Harper Lee's hometown.

To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee's only published book until Go Set a Watchman, an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, was published on July 14, 2015. Lee continued to respond to her work's impact until her death in February 2016, although she had refused any personal publicity for herself or the novel since 1964.

Biographical background and publication

Born in 1926, Harper Lee grew up in the Southern town of Monroeville, Alabama, where she became close friends with soon-to-be famous writer Truman Capote. She attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery (1944–45), and then studied law at the University of Alabama (1945–49). While attending college, she wrote for campus literary magazines: Huntress at Huntingdon and the humor magazine Rammer Jammer at the University of Alabama. At both colleges, she wrote short stories and other works about racial injustice, a rarely mentioned topic on such campuses at the time.[4] In 1950, Lee moved to New York City, where she worked as a reservation clerk for British Overseas Airways Corporation; there, she began writing a collection of essays and short stories about people in Monroeville. Hoping to be published, Lee presented her writing in 1957 to a literary agent recommended by Capote. An editor at J. B. Lippincott, who bought the manuscript, advised her to quit the airline and concentrate on writing.

Donations from friends allowed her to write uninterruptedly for a year.[5] After finishing the first draft and returning it to Lippincott, the manuscript, at that point titled "Go Set a Watchman",[6] fell into the hands of Therese von Hohoff Torrey, known professionally as Tay Hohoff. Hohoff was impressed, "[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line," she would later recount in a corporate history of Lippincott,[6] but as Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel." During the following two and a half years, she led Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form.[6]

After the "Watchman" title was rejected, it was re-titled Atticus but Lee renamed it To Kill a Mockingbird to reflect that the story went beyond a character portrait. The book was published on July 11, 1960.[7] The editorial team at Lippincott warned Lee that she would probably sell only several thousand copies.[8] In 1964, Lee recalled her hopes for the book when she said,

I never expected any sort of success with 'Mockingbird.' ... I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.[9]

Instead of a "quick and merciful death", Reader's Digest Condensed Books chose the book for reprinting in part, which gave it a wide readership immediately.[10] Since the original publication, the book has never been out of print.[11]