To Kill a Mockingbird
THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES
It was 1957 before Lee managed to finish a draft of her novel. The first editor
who read the manuscript turned it down, explaining that it was nothing more
than a series of short stories strung together. Lee agreed with the criticism,
and took the draft back for reworking. With help from her editor, Lee spent
the next two and a half years transforming the manuscript into the novel you
know today as To Kill a Mockingbird. There were many times when she became discouraged
and doubted that the book would ever be published. She later said that these
years remained in her memory as "a long and hopeless period of writing
the book over and over again."
Finally in 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird was ready for publication. The reception of
the novel made up for all the years of hard work and struggle. Not only was the book
well liked by reviewers, it was an instant success with readers young and old. Several
book clubs, including the Literary Guild, chose the novel as a selection. The movie
rights were sold almost immediately, the story becoming the basis for a successful
movie starring Gregory Peck in the role of the small-town lawyer Atticus Finch. In
1961 Lee's success was crowned with a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, making her the first woman
to win the award since 1942.
As a result of the success of her first novel, Harper Lee became something of a celebrity.
She was the subject of articles in such magazines as Life and Newsweek, and the elite
fashion magazine Vogue published one of her essays. It soon became apparent that Lee did not enjoy being the center of so much attention. Although by no means
a hermit, she seemed to have some of the impulse that led people like her eccentric
character Boo Radley to avoid public exposure. Lee insisted that in spite of her
success she still considered herself a journeyman writer, and she turned aside attempts to
get her to answer personal questions with witty but not very revealing answers. Having
returned to Alabama to work on her second novel, Lee complained that even there it
was difficult to find the privacy she needed to work without interruption. In the South,
she said, friends and neighbors who know you are working at home think nothing of
dropping by unannounced for coffee.
In 1961, shortly after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Harper Lee told interviewers
that her second novel was already begun. Its subject, she said, would be the eccentric
characters who seemed to abound in small southern towns.
More than twenty years have gone by since Lee gave this description of her forthcoming
work, and the novel has yet to appear. Nor has Lee ever given a public explanation
for the long delay.
The success of To Kill a Mockingbird was by no means a fluke. The novel was
the product of a long dedication to the craft of writing, and years of hard
work devoted to shaping the manuscript into its final form. Perhaps the best
measure of the novel's quality is that it has aged very little in two and a
half decades. Readers still see themselves in the characters of Scout and Jem
Finch, and are moved in turn to tears and laughter by the story.
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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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