Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is more than a literary classic; it’s a 50-year testament to the ways a well-told story can inspire readers and impact a culture.
Oprah Winfrey has called it America’s “national novel,” and Tom Brokaw remembers the “electrifying effect” it had on the country the year it debuted. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961, and in 1962 a movie adaptation garnered three Academy Awards (having been nominated for eight). Today, this treasured gem has sold more than 30 million copies.
To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in the summer of 1960 when its author, Nelle Harper Lee, was 35 years old. Living in a cold-water flat in New York City’s Yorkville neighborhood, she had been supporting herself with a series of odd jobs, from sales clerk in a bookstore to ticket agent for Eastern Airlines. For years, her ambition had been to become a writer. Her childhood friend Truman Capote (who appears in the book as the character Dill) had done it, but for Lee, any future literary success was contingent upon her ability to carve out time in the evenings after work to write.
Those close to Lee, like best friends Joy and Michael Martin Brown, believed in her though, and on Christmas Day, 1956, they presented Lee with an envelope. Inside was a note reading, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” Free to devote herself full time to her writing, Lee produced a bestseller.
To honor Lee’s achievement and celebrate the novel’s 50 years of enduring popularity, publisher HarperCollins is organizing events across the country—from readings to live re-enactments—and publishing several new editions of the classic. There’s an elegance to the To Kill a Mockingbird slipcased edition, while the 50th-anniversary hardcover is especially lovely with its vintage reproduction of the original book jacket. Also available is a mass market paperback.
Paying tribute to the novel’s lasting legacy is Mary McDonagh Murphy’s Scout, Atticus & Boo, a collection of 26 interviews with mostly well-known Americans reflecting on how the book has touched their lives. Included are Anna Quindlen, Jon Meacham, Allan Gurganus, Mary Badham (the actress who played Scout in the movie) and even Lee’s sister, Alice Lee.
Gaining a million more readers every year, To Kill a Mockingbird’s enduring success can be traced both to the novel’s subjects—Scout’s coming-of-age, the trial of Tom Robinson—and to Lee’s storytelling. The book tackles the injustice of racism, takes a stand for what is right, yet thankfully lacks any tone of self-righteousness or high-minded piety. Lee’s characters are wonderfully crafted, so vivid and alive. Her prose is beautifully languid, her descriptions sharp-eyed and her humor smart.
Harper Lee accomplished something great with To Kill a Mockingbird, and with every passing decade, another generation of readers is wholly, and completely, captivated by its magic.