To Kill A Mockingbird: The life and afterlife of Harper Lee's misunderstood classic

After 50 years, Harper Lee's only novel remains an icon of literature – and law.

Ask anyone which American novels they read at school, and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) will almost certainly feature. One of the most commercially, critically and pedagogically successful works of all time, this novel about a lawyer's family in the 1930s Deep South won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, has sold more than 30 million copies, and featured on the majority of reading lists ever since. British librarians called it a book "every adult should read before they die", while Publishing Triangle listed it as one of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels (as a lesbian "coming-of-age" tale). A special edition (Arrow, £6.99) has been published to mark, in the blurb's words, "the fiftieth anniversary of this unforgettable classic".

Regarded as suitable for the young reader – for its young girl's first-person narrative voice, albeit from an adult distance, and for its educative tone – it has been widely adopted as a set text. The film (1962), produced by Alan J Pakula and directed by Robert Mulligan, is best remembered for Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch. It is 25th on the American Film Institute's list of best American movies, with Atticus named in 2003 as the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.

Indeed, the figure of Finch has been held up by the legal profession and teachers alike as a modern prophet, a Christ-like fount of goodness and wisdom – "the Abe Lincoln of Alabama". The author, the octogenarian reclusive Southern woman who still lives in her Alabama home town, Monroeville, never published another novel.

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the mid-1930s, in a fictitious small town, Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression years of "Jim Crow" laws ensuring racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans. Its title relates to the instruction given by attorney Atticus Finch that, while his children can shoot with their air rifles any number of bluejays (this is the gun-toting South), they must never shoot a mockingbird, since they "'don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us'". The novel relates the legal defence by single-parent Atticus of an innocent black man (the symbolic mockingbird), Tom Robinson, accused of rape by a poor "white trash" girl, Mayella Ewell, whose racist father Bob has abused her. The story is told from the adult perspective of Atticus's tomboy daughter, Scout, who observes the trial with her brother, Jem, and dare-devil friend Dill (modelled on Lee's friend, Truman Capote).

Despite his respected credentials, and a powerful defence case, in this segregated town Atticus has to accept a guilty verdict by the all-white male jury. Before an appeal, Tom tries to escape from jail and is brutally shot dead. Bob Ewell – indirectly accused by Atticus of his daughter's rape – attempts to kill Scout and Jem, but is dramatically prevented by a figure straight out of Southern Gothic fiction, the reclusive Boo Radley.

Like Margaret Mitchell, another unknown writer who published no sequel or successor to her one bestseller, Gone With the Wind (1936), Harper Lee received the Pulitzer Prize. She was grandly fêted and photographed for Life magazine, with Hollywood directors and Gregory Peck, then withdrew from public life and refused interviews. After disappearing from the media radar for over 40 years, she attracted attention as the sidekick to Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote in the 2005 film, Capote.

Catherine Keener played the long-term friend who helped Capote research and plan his book, In Cold Blood (work he described with sexist dismissivenesss as "secretarial help"). A year later, Sandra Bullock appeared as Harper Lee in another film about Capote, Infamous. That year, 2006, Lee herself granted one surprise interview to the New York Times, speaking only about a writing competition she adjudicates annually at the University of Alabama.

The American South has long been the focus of US and global fears, desires and Gothic fantasies. The site of the nation's worst excesses of slavery, the bloody battlegrounds of the 19th-century Civil War and 20th-century civil-rights brutalities, it has also spawned some of the nation's most brilliant books and films. Blessed with substantial novels and plays that have been adapted into acclaimed films, the South's history and socio-political complexities have been explored and celebrated with popular success. Gone With the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, Roots, The Color Purple – and of course To Kill a Mockingbird - have been done proud by directors, actors and Academy Awards.

Harper Lee was well aware of the generic range of Southern literature – the plantation and sentimental novel (Alabama's Augusta Evans Wilson's Beulah and St Elmo), the Gothic (Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and the sensational (Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road) – and she claimed all she wanted to be was "the Jane Austen of South Alabama", focusing on "small-town middle-class southern life". This is ironic or disingenuous, and Mockingbird is no Southern version of Little House on the Prairie. Indeed, the novel defines itself within or against Southern genres, playing with readers' expectations and alluding to the many class, race and gender hypocrisies, inequalities and cruelties of small-town American life.

Although set 30 years earlier than its publication date, the novel was immediately understood as commentary on the series of significant lawsuits about race that culminated in the great civil-rights acts of the 1960s. There are two notorious cases that haunt this work. First is Alabama's Scottsboro case of 1931, in which – following a blatantly unfair trial – eight black teenagers received the death penalty in Alabama for raping two white girls. Second is the shocking murder of the 14-year-old African American Emmett Till, in Mississippi in 1955, for whistling at a white woman – widely regarded as a major spur to the civil-rights movement.

Most important was the groundbreaking 1954 Brown vs Board of Education case. The US Supreme Court over-ruled the "separate but equal" education provision of the previous half-century, and precipitated wider challenges to discrimination – not least the great Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56 in Harper Lee's state, Alabama.

While non-violent direct action undermined the complacency of a racist South, the courtroom became the nation's imaginative debating chamber for issues of racial justice and equality. So, as civil rights activism exploded in the early 1960s, with violent racist battles seen on TV screens, the public developed a huge appetite for courtroom dramas. Both courtroom drama and threatened lynching feature in Mockingbird. Atticus's magisterial final speech to the jury challenges social and racial inequality from the perspective of rational justice and morality.



The book's publication was hailed by The New York Times as a favourable contrast to "morbid, grotesque tales of southern depravity"; in Britain, the Times Literary Supplement agreed that the Finch family were "an oasis of enlightenment in a district rampant with all the old Southern vices".

Yet, as critic Alice Hall Petry wryly observes, critics praising this wholesome family book seemed to overlook its "false accusation of rape, the shooting (seventeen times) of an innocent black man, the acknowledgment of actual incestuous rape, the attempted murder of children, the stabbing to death of the would-be murderer, a man kept prisoner in his own home, and a lynch mob... a morphine addict.. and a boy calling his well-meaning teacher a 'snot-nosed slut'". It is surprising, then, that this hard-hitting novel is usually accorded only a short footnote or brief reference in critical studies of Southern, and indeed American literature. There is only one serious biography, by Charles J Shields, and the first collection of original essays, Hall Petry's On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections, appeared as late as 2007.

Curiously, this novel and film have attracted far more scholarship by lawyers than literary or film critics, including an entire issue of Alabama Law Review in 1994. Lee herself studied law and the novel has been the focus of many debates about the role of the profession and in particular the nature of the disinterested or engaged lawyer in matters of social and racial importance.

Atticus Finch was hailed as a paragon of virtue, whose cool integrity ensured that the law stood for all that was wisest and best in a divided society. His often-quoted words to Scout are used to exemplify the model legal system: "You never really understand a person... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." The "law and literature" movement has embraced this novel's example of legal storytelling, offering competing voices and narratives that contribute to a story and judgement. Atticus's behaviour – especially in his summation, when he appeals emotionally to the jury – bridges the professional detachment and empathy gap, now a familiar feature in legal fiction, TV and film, as the human failings - and messy lives and inconsistencies of lawyers - offer a more unstable version of justice.

In recent years this idealisation of Atticus Finch has been challenged. He is accused of having an élitist and paternalistic attitude towards his client and women, while some have asked how this "father-knows-best" could have so casually overlooked the Depression South's appalling record of racism, sexism and class exploitation.

But, to me, re-reading after many years, the myopia of Atticus, his townsfolk and children, all read historically true, and reveal – through their inconsistencies, crass judgements, and unthinking prejudices – the crisis facing the segregated South of the 1930s and the urgent need for a transformation of racial, gender and class roles and expectations in the late 1950s.

Harper Lee observed clearly and wrote prophetically. For all the novel's occasional sentimentality and whimsy, she produced a powerful indictment of American racial history at a crucial moment, one which remains relevant to today's multi-cultural US. This book deserves its long-standing success.

Helen Taylor is professor of English at Exeter University, and author of 'Circling Dixie: contemporary Southern culture through a transatlantic lens'

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?