Southern Women Writers — Thinking about Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird

Last month, February 2012, I wanted to read something to commemorate it being Black History Month. It occurred to me sometime in the past year that I’d never read the book or seen the film based on the book To Kill a Mockingbird. What I knew vaguely about the book is that it takes place in the American South and it is about a white Southern male lawyer who defends an impoverished Black man when he is accused of raping a white woman.

I remember being slightly shocked when I initially was told by someone that this was what the novel was about (not the entire plot as it turns out, however a very pivotal aspect of the story). I’d also read that Robert Duvall played the part of “Boo Radley” in the movie, and this was one of his first roles, I believe, as an actor. I didn’t know who this character Boo Radley was and where it fit into the story. Basically I had some pretty disjointed knowledge and questions about what this novel was actually going to be about as I went about to read it.

Turns out it is actually of a coming of age story about Scout Finch, a 6-7 year old girl, and her view of the world that includes her father (lawyer Atticus Finch), her 11-12 year old brother, their neighbors including the reclusive Boo Radley, and some other asundry characters as well. The story takes place in the late 1930s in a small Alabama town and for Atticus, a white man lawyer, to believe in and defend a Black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman, it caused quite a stir in the town. The dynamics of the trial and Atticus’s fortitude in the face of the white townspeople awakens in the reader an awareness of how prevalent biogtry and racism was there.

The writer, Harper Lee herself, is from the South and this story’s voice has the depth of authenticity to it. The book was published actually in the late 1950s, I believe (the book celebrated its 50 year anniversary in 2008). It is not my intention here to write about the novel itself, its themes and characterizations and such. What is interesting to me are two things: first, the book won a Pulitzer Prize. This is pretty astounding in my opinion and I believe the book (& Harper Lee, the author) earned it. What is amazing is that this was Lee’s first published novel (!) And this leads me to the second thing: Harper Lee did not write any other novels. It is said that she collaborated with her longtime (from childhood) friend, Truman Capote, on doing research for his work, In Cold Blood, so she was involved in the literary world after the publishing and subsequent popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird. Still it seems strange and kind of sad that she didn’t go on to write more. Fame and all the hullabaloo that goes along with it perhaps played a part in Harper Lee not being able to write more. Also I read that two of her good friends, a couple, gave her money to be able to take off a year working a 9-5 job so that she would be able to write (& the result was her writing TKAMB). So maybe, after that experience, Lee was not able to feel free enough to take the time again to write. It is hard to say or speculate why.

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