The rumors dogged her from the start: Harper Lee didn’t deserve it. Not the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, not the sales (30 million copies and counting), and not the credit. This month marks the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of a young girl’s encounter with racial injustice in a small Alabama town during the Depression. Bookstores and schools (and the book’s publisher, HarperCollins) are treating the occasion as a kind of national holiday, with celebrations, enactments, and commemorative events. Sighting the media-shy Harper Lee has become a newspaper-worthy event in its own right. Journalists have staked out her favorite coffee spots and brought her chocolates, hoping to get a glimpse and elicit a word. For others, the anniversary is more of an excuse to bash it or to ask why she never wrote another novel. Critics have suggested that Lee knew she wasn’t skilled enough to pull it off. Whispers that her childhood friend Truman Capote was the real author still linger, even though they were long ago disproved.
The story behind To Kill a Mockingbird is more common—and richer—than it is sensational. We like to think of writers, like heroes, as isolated beings. To an extent, it’s true; writing is often lonely and painful, a confrontation between the self and the blankness of the page. But a book is also shaped by the system of editors, agents, publishers, teachers, and readers. Harper Lee did have help in writing To Kill a Mockingbird. It takes nothing away from her accomplishment to realize that the dynamic interplay between individual effort and structural support is particularly pertinent to Lee’s story. Writing is like most important things: individual greatness matters, but it’s not enough by itself. It’s a lesson, in fact, that echoes an overlooked theme of her book.
Lee had dropped out of college during her senior year to move to New York and become a writer—to the dismay of her father, who wanted her to be a lawyer. She spent nearly a decade doing odd jobs and scraping by before she submitted five stories to a Maurice Crain, an agent who, frankly, wasn’t overly impressed. But he and his wife liked Lee, and he encouraged her to try a novel. The result, then called Atticus, was a mess. “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning,” said Tay Hohoff, an editor at J.B. Lippencott, who described the submission to Lee’s biographer, Charles Shields. Still, Hohoff and the others at Lippencott saw something promising in it and took a chance. Lee clearly needed guidance—but she would get it. Lee rewrote the novel three times over the next two and a half years. At one point, she threw the manuscript out the window and called Hohoff. Her editor persuaded her to go outside and gather the floating pages.
In his 2006 biography, Mockingbird, Shields guesses that the importance of these relationships might help explain why Lee never wrote another novel. “If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that artists are not Byronic types who emote on windy cliffs,” Shields writes. “In Lee’s case, these people were especially necessary, and replacements for them could not be found.” The exigencies of celebrity, the retirement of her editor, the death of her agent, and the consuming demands of her family and friends weakened and then finally broke the structure she had depended on.
We typically think that To Kill a Mockingbird is about the heroic stand of Atticus Finch. There is no question that Atticus, a lawyer and the young narrator’s father, is brave. He is also principled, humane, funny, and compassionate—the town’s designated conscience, one character notes. He regards everyone, even those threatening him, with respect and sympathy, and he says things like “Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.” The most easily digested moral of the novel is summed up in his advice. “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks,” Atticus tells his daughter. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”
The book’s climactic scene revolves around Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Robinson doesn’t have a chance of acquittal, and Atticus knows it. But he hopes to convince just one jury member, to draw out the deliberation over Robinson’s fate a little longer. Atticus presumes that change happens slowly, even one man at a time. What matters is the way a man comports himself—his dignity, his compassion. He appeals to the better nature of others, but he makes demands of no one but himself. “There are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us,” the Finches’ neighbor tells Atticus’s son and daughter. “Your father’s one of them.”
But the trial scene occupies only part of the book—about 30 percent, Shields notes. The rest is given to Atticus’s son, Jem, and his daughter, Scout, the book’s young narrator. To Kill a Mockingbird is about Scout’s moral education, and Atticus is her most important teacher. But he’s not alone. He has help. There’s a spirited neighbor; a man who pretends he’s drunk so that he can live his life as he pleases; and, of course, the mysterious next-door neighbor Boo Radley. Mostly, though, there’s Calpurnia, the African-American cook. Calpurnia occupies that ambiguous spot between servant and mother. Her verdict in disputes with Scout is unimpeachable, but she is paid and she is black. The children don’t know where she’s from or the date of her birthday, and she is forced to stay silent, wearing a starched apron, and to serve Atticus’s sister, who loudly questions her inherent worth.
Calpurnia embodies many of the exemplary virtues that Atticus champions. But she teaches the Finch children a different kind of lesson, as well. The experiences they have with her and the African-American community in Macomb, Ala., suggest that there’s a more interesting and complicated dynamic at work in To Kill a Mockingbird than just the example of Atticus. And it’s not as hopeful and sweet as the Hollywood version suggests.
When Atticus is away one Sunday, Calpurnia takes the children to her church, First Purchase African M.E., in “the Quarters,” where the African-Americans live. First Purchase bears some resemblance to the church that Scout knows, but not much. There are no hymnbooks, for example; instead, with simple and eerie harmony, the congregation repeats the lines of a leader. But the strangest departure occurs during the collection. It seems familiar enough at first; Reverend Sykes announces that the proceeds will go to the wife of the accused, Tom Robinson, and the congregation drops its nickels and dimes into a tin can. And then something extraordinary happens.
Sykes emptied the can onto the table and raked the coins into his hand. He straightened up and said, “This is not enough, we must have ten dollars.” The congregation stirred. “You all know what it’s for—Helen can’t leave those children to work while Tom’s in jail. If everyone gives one more dime, we’ll have it—” Sykes waved his hand and called to someone in the back of the church. “Alec, shut the doors. Nobody leaves here till we have ten dollars.” Slowly, painfully, the $10 was collected. Unlike Atticus, Sykes doesn’t just make an appeal to kindness: he makes a demand.
Sykes reappears in the book during the court trial. When the Finch children can’t find a seat in the audience, he offers them a spot in the balcony, where the African-Americans are segregated. Sykes, like Atticus, knows what to expect from the trial. He knows that Tom, a member of his community, will be unfairly convicted and locked up; that Tom’s wife, Helen, will have a hard time finding work and feeding her children; and that there are men sitting in that courtroom—even in that jury box—who would rather lynch a black man than let him stand trial.
Sykes and the other men and women in the balcony have every reason to be bitter. When Atticus loses the case, Tom Robinson effectively—and, later, literally—loses his life. But when Atticus exits the courtroom, the people in the balcony rise. Sykes tells Scout to stand up, too. “Your father’s passin’,” he says.
It’s a tribute to a man of conscience, but it’s not that simple. For Atticus, it’s a “lonely walk.” But in the balcony, there are some insipient stirrings of something else, something that Scout can’t quite understand. Writing in the 1950s, it’s possible that Lee—who kept her distance from the civil-rights movement—herself did not understand. Things are changing. Atticus’s example matters. But so does the sight of those men and women in the balcony, standing together.
Lest we think the message too saccharine, it’s worth remembering that To Kill a Mockingbird is a tragedy. Tom Robinson—the real mockingbird—is dead. No individual hero, no conscientious community, no fact nor hope changes that.