0 Today I Learned...the Story Behind 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson in the 1962 film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Photo credit: The New Yorker
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

The classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird turns 50 today. More than 30 million copies of the book have been sold in over 40 different languages since its first publication on July 11, 1960. For most of us, the novel was required reading at some point during our education. The book was also made into the well-received 1962 film with the same title, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

The NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) tells the story of reclusive author Harper Lee's book and how it was almost lost forever one snowy evening in New York:
How the Novel Came to Be Written
Any claims for To Kill a Mockingbird as a book that changed history could not have seemed more far-fetched one winter night in 1958, as Nelle Harper Lee huddled in her outer-borough New York apartment trying to finesse her unruly, episodic manuscript into some semblance of a cohesive novel. All but drowning in multiple drafts of the same material, Lee suddenly threw open a window and scattered five years of work onto the dirty snow below.

Did Lee really intend to destroy To Kill a Mockingbird? We'll never know. Fortunately, in the next moment, she called her editor. J.B. Lippincott's formidable Tay Hohoff promptly sent her outside to gather all the pages back-thus rescuing To Kill a Mockingbird from the slush.

The novel had its origins in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama-the small, Southern town that the fictional Maycomb is based upon. Her father's unsuccessful defense of a black man and his son accused of murder, in addition to the Scottsboro Boys trials and another notorious interracial rape case, helped to shape Lee's budding social conscience and sense of a dramatic story.

Along with his legal practice, Lee's father published and edited the town newspaper. His regard for the written word impacted Lee's sensibility as surely as his respect for the law. Lee would name her idealized vision of her father after Titus Pomponius Atticus, a friend of the Roman orator Cicero renowned as, according to Lee, "a wise, learned and humane man." For a long time, Lee called her work in progress Atticus. This arguably marked an improvement over her first title, Go Set a Watchman, but once she fastened on To Kill a Mockingbird she did not look back.

Lippincott finally published the book on July 11, 1960, by which time an unprecedented four national mail-order book clubs had already selected it for their readers. The first line of the Washington Post's review echoed many similar notices that praised the novel for its moral impact: "A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere 18 ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird."

Eighty weeks later, the novel still perched on the hardcover bestseller list. During that time, it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the hearts of American readers. One can't help wondering how literary history might have been different had Harper Lee thrown her manuscript out the window on a slightly windier night.

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