Often cited as the second most influential book in the lives of American readers (the Bible being the first), To Kill a Mockingbird is also one of the most frequently assigned texts in U.S. classrooms. Loosely based on author Harper Lee’s small-town childhood, the novel has courted controversy for its treatment of race and for Lee’s status as a one-hit wonder. This map takes a look at Mockingbird’s origins and its place in the canon.
To Kill a Mockingbird has never been out of print and continues to sell nearly a million copies a year. Although the novel’s success has certainly been a financial boon to Harper Lee and her publishers, it’s not hard to wonder whether it hasn’t also been a psychological millstone around the author’s neck. Lee never published another book. Perhaps, as has often been said, she didn’t need to. Mockingbird—which looks back with honesty at some of the 20th century’s darkest days for African Americans in the South—said it all and said it well. Or maybe, as Harper Lee quipped in 2007, “it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”
Upon its publication, Newsweek reviewed Mockingbird as “refreshingly undepraved,” and Time said Harper Lee had “all the tactile brilliance and none of the preciosity generally supposed to be standard swamp-warfare issue for Southern writers.” Other readers were less generous: Fellow Southern scribe Carson McCullers (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940) called Mockingbird derivative and accused Lee of “poaching on my literary preserves,” while another, Flannery O’Connor (A Good Man Is Hard to Find, 1955), dismissed it as a “children’s book.”
Like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel Americans read to understand their country’s history of racial prejudice. As African American writer Ralph Ellison noted of Huck Finn, “a white American novelist of good heart, of democratic vision” wrote it primarily for a white readership. The same could be said of Mockingbird, and perhaps neither author would have anticipated both these books being banned because of frequent usage of the N-word.
Despite the random racism Mockingbird’s narrator, Scout Finch, displays (e.g., “The warm bittersweet smell of clean Negro welcomed us as we entered the churchyard”), the novel was, as Charles Shields notes in his biography of Lee, a book that “seized the imagination of the post–World War II generation—a novel that figured in changing the ‘system.’” In 2006 scholar Harold Bloom wrote that while he was “charmed” by Scout, the book itself felt “dated” and couldn’t rival a canonical work like Huck Finn. Mockingbird remains comparatively ignored by literary critics, who over the years have written only a trickle of words about it, yet Huck Finn has inspired seemingly endless commentary.
Set in the South from 1835 to 1845, Mark Twain’s most famous novel, the coming-of-age story of impoverished, perceptive Huck Finn as he journeys down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave, reflects the growing pains of the U.S. itself as it struggled with the legacy of slavery. To Kill a Mockingbird is set in fictional 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, and concerns young Scout Finch and her friends, who are preoccupied with a neighborhood recluse until a criminal case exposes the racial and class tensions festering in their hometown.
Like Scout’s, Huck’s narration is captivating but casually racist, and the exaggerated vernacular dialogue of Twain’s slave character, Jim, is such a caricature of ignorance and superstition it’s almost the literary equivalent of blackface. As early as 1885 the book was banned from a Massachusetts library for its “trashy and vicious” nature. Similarly, in 1966 a Richmond, Virginia, school board banned Mockingbird, claiming it was “immoral” and “improper.” Referencing the hypocritical, contradictory beliefs satirized in George Orwell’s dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lee replied, “To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.”
Nelle Harper Lee is one of the most beloved living writers in the U.S., although her entire oeuvre consists of one novel and five short pieces (including one about reading, for Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine). There have been rumors of other works, including a fiction manuscript allegedly stolen from her apartment in the 1970s and The Reverend, a nonfiction book in the novelized true-crime style that Truman Capote pioneered with his 1966 book In Cold Blood.
For years it was rumored that the better-known, more prolific Capote had written much or even all of To Kill a Mockingbird. After all, he and Lee had been friends since childhood (the diminutive, precocious character Dill is based on the young Capote), and if Lee were really so talented, why didn’t she ever produce a second book? Perhaps jealous of Lee’s success, Capote never categorically denied the authorship rumors. However, a letter suggests he had no hand in writing Mockingbird. “I did not see Nelle last winter,” Capote wrote to his aunt in 1959, “but the previous year she showed me as much of the book as she’d written, and I liked it very much. She has real talent.”
When he was four, Truman Capote moved to Monroeville, Alabama, where he became a neighbor and friend of Harper Lee. The two whiled away their afternoons composing stories on an old Underwood No. 5 typewriter Lee’s father had given them. The authors remained close throughout their lives, though at times their friendship was tried. When The New Yorker hired Capote to write about a family brutally murdered in Kansas in 1959, Lee accompanied him to the crime scene to assist with research. The project became the “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, and though Lee produced hundreds of pages of notes, Capote never explicitly acknowledged her help. Of course, by the time In Cold Blood was published, the previously unknown Lee had won a Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird.
Wary of publicity, Lee gives few interviews, though she is commonly sighted in Monroeville, where she still lives with her oldest sister, Alice, a lawyer. Their father wanted Harper to take the same path, and from 1945 to 1949 she attended law school at the University of Alabama. She stopped one semester short of graduation and moved to New York, where she hoped to become a successful novelist.
Fighting for a black man’s right to a fair trial, Atticus Finch is the moral center of To Kill a Mockingbird. To many readers Atticus exemplifies both model lawyer and model citizen, empathic and principled even when facing scorn and threats. Though he hasn’t escaped criticism—on Mockingbird’s 50th anniversary, Wall Street Journal columnist Allen Barra derided Atticus as a “repository of cracker-barrel epigrams”—many lawyers have cited him as the primary reason they entered the profession. In 2010 the American Bar Association, calling him “an instrument of truth, an advocate of justice, the epitome of reason,” published “The 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers (Who Are Not Atticus Finch).”
Finch was Harper Lee’s mother’s maiden name, and Atticus was borrowed from Titus Atticus, a friend of Roman statesman and orator Cicero. Lee called this ancient precursor “wise, learned and humane,” a description equally befitting Atticus Finch. Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, was a newspaperman, lawyer and state legislator, and while noting that her fictional attorney was not entirely based on him, Lee likened the two men in “character” and “disposition.” In 1919 A.C. Lee unsuccessfully defended two black men accused of murder—a case almost certainly a model for Mockingbird’s trial.