They are still toasting and cheering in Monroeville, Ala., a week after the official observance commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of that quintessential Southern novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Nationally, the celebration has been going on for weeks, with stories in major magazines, including Smithsonian, Southern Living, and a turn by Pulitzer Prize-winner and Alabaman Rick Bragg in Reader’s Digest. At least one book, Scout, Atticus, and Boo by Mary McDonagh Murphy, was published this spring to observe the moment.
Although author Harper Lee, 84, is in a retirement home today, she has been retired for decades. Known for her reclusiveness and eccentricity almost as much as for her book, Lee put in a few appearances in the weeks prior to the July 11 anniversary but pretty much left the speaking and toasting to others.
And why not? How much more can be said about this wonderful little book? Forty million copies sold worldwide. Translated into 50 languages. Ranked as the best novel of the 20th century in a 1999 survey by the Library Journal. A 1991 survey by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that Mockingbird was the one written work “most often cited as making a difference in people’s lives, second only to the Bible.”
Southerners love a good yarn more than any people since the ancient Greeks, and Mockingbird is a yarn for the ages. In a time of intense and often violent social change, it affected people as no speech or treatise could have. It is not a civil rights story, yet with its tale of racial violence and injustice, it allowed whites to sit in the comfort of their homes and book clubs and peer across the color line, to stare into the darker corners of the American psyche. What they saw there transformed many and, for some, this newfound awareness prompted them to become politically and socially active. Even today, lawyers around the country say they were inspired to go into law by the courage and conviction of Atticus Finch, the attorney at the heart of the novel.
To those who require a refresher, the story takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala., in 1936. It is told by 6-year-old Scout Finch, whose father is appointed to represent a black man accused of raping a white woman. The rage of the community is directed not just at the falsely accused man, Tom Robinson, but at the Finch family as well. Atticus is wise and strong throughout the crisis, never allowing himself to impart fear to his children. Even as he is vilified and threatened by an angry mob, he remains stoic. Only when his own children are threatened does he take action. Seen through the eyes of young Scout, the folly and injustice of adult society is clear, but never pedantic.
The novel won a Pulitzer Prize and was turned into an Academy Award-winning film two years later, starring none other than Gregory Peck. Perhaps these triumphs are why Mockingbird remains Lee’s first and only book. After all, what could she have done to top it? Or perhaps, as some have suggested, she was too stunned by the years of celebrity and fawning to ever put pen to paper again. Whatever the reason, she became Monroeville’s silent sphinx, a famous spinster living with her spinster sister in a prosaic little town in southern Alabama.
I was 10 years old when Mockingbird came out, but I did not get around to reading it until college. I was ready for it then. I’m not sure I would have been ready in my slow and isolated South Carolina hometown, which could have easily been a model for Maycomb.
For me, it was the story of one man’s grace in the midst of anger and violence. Atticus Finch could not prevent the tragedy which overwhelmed his town. After all, as Rick Bragg wrote, “It would take more than one good Alabama man to make this sorry world all right.”
But one suspects that those who witnessed Atticus’ quiet strength would forever be changed. Certainly, he inspired millions who have met him on the pages of Harper Lee’s novel.
Reading Mockingbird did not inspire me to become an attorney, but it did play into my decision to go into journalism. I have always been awed by the power of words to move people — for good or for evil. I’m still looking for the right words to “make this sorry world all right.” But until they come to me, I will keep reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight. Love Best of Charleston? Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.
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