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Fifty years on, To Kill A Mockingbird remains as powerful as ever

Alan Taylor celebrates a much-loved novel and its reclusive author, Harper Lee.

Every year for the past five decades or so, some 30,000 people have flocked from around the globe to Monroeville, Alabama, a town with a population of 7,000 which is at least two hours from anywhere anyone has heard of.

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They come to pay homage to its most celebrated citizen, Harper Lee, the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, the novel which consistently tops polls in America as the nation’s favourite.

This year, however, Monroeville will be visited by many more devotees than usual. It is 50 years since To Kill A Mockingbird was first published, and the celebrations in Lee’s home town and elsewhere in the country will be reflective of the affection for a novel which has sold more than 30m copies and which continues to sell by the barrowload. HarperCollins, which inherited the book from its original publisher, Lippincott, is publishing four new editions of it, each with a different cover. A bookshop in Rhinebeck, New York, is hosting a party at which guests will dance to music by The Boo Radleys, the indie band which took its name from one of the novel’s principal characters. Meanwhile, in Monroeville itself, four days of Mockingbird-related events are planned, including a reading of the novel in its entirety in the local courthouse, scene of the dramatic trial with which it culminates.

One person who is not expected to take part in the celebrations is Harper Lee. Now 84, she divides her time between Monroeville and New York. She was last interviewed in the 1960s and is rarely seen in public, the antithesis of the modern author for whom it would be unthinkable – and doubtless commercially suicidal – to spurn publicity and the lure of celebrity.

Lee, like Thomas Pynchon and the late JD Salinger, prefers to let her book do the talking. In 1993, coinciding with a new edition of her classic, she consented to write a foreword. “Spare Mockingbird an Introduction,” she wrote. “As a reader I loathe Introductions. To novels, I associate Introductions with long gone authors and works that are being brought back into print after decades of interment. Although Mockingbird will be 33 this year, it has never been out of print and I am still alive, although very quiet. Introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity. The only good thing about Introductions is that in some cases they delay the dose to come. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”

Such a gnomic utterance has only served to heighten interest and increase speculation about the author whose roots in the Deep South can be traced back to General Robert E Lee, commander of the Confederate Army during the calamitous civil war. Born in April 1926 in the midst of the Depression, Lee grew up in the small town which in Mockingbird she called Maycomb. The novel is related by Scout, Lee’s tomboy alter ego. For her, looking back on her childhood, “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”

Like many novels set in the Deep South, such as Huckleberry Finn, Gone With The Wind and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County series, Mockingbird is concerned primarily with race and class. Scout’s widowed father, Atticus, played in the multi-Oscar winning film by Gregory Peck, is a lawyer, as was Lee’s. Atticus is called upon to defend a black man accused of the rape of a white girl, thus bringing to the surface tensions normally submerged in a society where manners and extravagant courtesy mask deep-rooted prejudice and inequality. It is believed that Lee was greatly influenced by a real case in Scottsboro, Alabama, where, in 1931, nine young black men were accused of the rape of two white women on a freight train.

She wrote her novel while in New York where she was employed as a reservations clerk for a couple of airline companies. Previously, she’d only written a few short stories for which she’d received encouragement but no firm commitment to publish. On Christmas Day, 1956, two friends handed her a note which said: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” It was a gift that turned into the novel which the Chicago Tribune reviewer said was of such excellence that “it will no doubt make a great many readers slow down to relish more fully its simple distinction”. Subsequently, it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, making Lee its first female recipient since 1942. Other awards came as thick and fast as sales which the film, which appeared in 1962, only served to enhance. Thereafter, Lee slipped out of the limelight and retreated to Monroeville where she never married. She lived with her sister and enjoyed playing golf and reading Jane Austen, Charles Lamb and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Why she never followed up the success of Mockingbird has been the subject of fevered and futile speculation, none of which has been confirmed by the only source that matters. The same goes for the other rumours which have dogged Lee since she woke up and found herself famous. Is she gay? Or in love with a man who could not reciprocate her feelings? And what of the notion that it was not she who wrote Mockingbird but her childhood friend and soulmate Truman Capote? And what, indeed, of the suggestion that she wrote more of In Cold Blood than Capote, its putative author? Is it at all possible that they were a literary partnership, the remarkable progeny of an unremarkable backwater, each as influential and indispensable as the other?

Most of the above are unworthy of consideration. There is, for example, no way of knowing which way sexually Lee has swung. As for who wrote what, Capote liked to imply that he wrote a good part of Mockingbird but, other than his boasts, there is no evidence that he did. The likelihood is that he was jealous that she won a Pulitzer and he did not.

At least Capote had the grace to acknowledge that, without Lee, In Cold Blood would have been much harder for him to complete. Commissioned by The New Yorker, he asked Lee to accompany him to Kansas where, in 1960, they went together to probe the random murder of the Clutter family. “She is a gifted woman,” said Capote, “courageous with a warmth that instantly kindles most people, however suspicious or dour.”

While the kneejerk reaction of Kansans to Capote, with his high, squeaky voice and effeminate demeanour, was suspicion, even repulsion, they found Nelle – as Capote called Lee – much easier to communicate and empathise with. She it was, Capote recognised, who opened doors for him that might have remained closed. And she it was who put normally reticent people at their ease, talking to them straight and honest and sincerely as Atticus Finch did when facing the jury in the novel that remains to this day a life enhancer.

As an early reviewer perceptively noted, To Kill A Mockingbird remains “that rare literary phenomenon, a Southern novel with no mildew on its magnolia leaves”.

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