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Born in Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926, Nelle Harper Lee is the youngest of three children of
Amassa Coleman Lee and Francis Lee. Before his death, Miss Lee's father and her older sister, Alice,
practiced law together in Monroeville. When one considers the theme of honor that runs throughout Miss
Lee's novel, it is perhaps significant to note that her family is related to Confederate General Robert E.
Lee, a man especially noted for his devotion to that virtue.
Miss Lee received her early education in the Monroeville public schools. Following this, she entered the
University of Alabama to study law. She left there to spend a year in England as an exchange student.
Returning to the university, she continued her studies, but left in 1950 without having completed the
requirements for her law degree. She moved to New York and worked as an airline reservation clerk.
It is said that Miss Lee personally resembles the tomboy she describes in the character of Scout. Her
dark straight hair is worn cut in a short style. Her main interests, she says, are "collecting the memoirs
of nineteenth century clergymen, golf, crime, and music." She is a Whig in political thought and believes
in "Catholic emancipation and the repeal of the corn laws."
Sources Of To Kill A Mockingbird
Among the sources for Miss Lee's novel are the following:
(1) National events: This novel focuses on the role of the Negro in Southern life, a life with which Miss
Lee has been intimately associated. Although it does not deal with civil rights as such - for example, the
right to vote - it is greatly concerned with the problem of human dignity - dignity based on individual
merit, not racial origin. The bigotry of the characters in this novel greatly resembles that of the people in
the South today, where the fictional Maycomb County is located.
(2) Specific Persons: Atticus Finch is the principal character in this novel. He bears a close resemblance
to Harper Lee's father, whose middle name was Finch. In addition to both being lawyers, they are similar
in character and personality - humble, intelligent and hard-working.
(3) Personal Experience: Boo Radley's house has an aura of fantasy, superstition, and curiosity for the
Finch children. There was a similar house in Harper Lee's childhood. Furthermore, Miss Lee grew up amid
the Negro prejudice and violence in Alabama. In addition, she studied law and visited her father's law
offices as a child, just as Scout visits Atticus' office and briefly considers a career as a lawyer.
Harper Lee began to develop an interest in writing at the age of seven. Her law studies proved to be
good training for a writing career: they promote logical thinking, and legal cases are an excellent source
of story ideas. After she came to New York, she approached a literary agent with a manuscript of two
essays and three short stories. Miss Lee followed his suggestion that she expand one of the stories into
a novel. This eventually became To Kill A Mockingbird.
After the success of her first novel, Miss Lee returned to Monroeville to begin work on a second one. She
learned quickly that privacy was not one of the prizes of a best-selling novelist. "These southern people
are southern people," she said, "and if they know you are working at home, they think nothing of
walking in for coffee." Miss Lee also has said that her second novel will be about the South, for she is
convinced that her section of the country is "the refuge of genuine eccentrics."
Miss Lee thinks of herself as a journeyman writer, and of writing as the most difficult work in the world.
Her workday begins at noon and continues until early evening. At the end of this time, she may have
completed a page or two. Before rewriting, she always allows some time to elapse, for a fresh viewpoint
on what she has done.
Besides her prize-winning novel, Miss Lee has had several essays published. For example, "Christmas
to Me" appeared in the December, 1961, issue of McCalls, and "Love - In other Words" appeared in the
April 15, 1961, edition of Vogue. These essays display the same easy, sympathetic style of her novel.
Success Of To Kill A Mockingbird
The success of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, can be assessed from its appearance on the
bestseller lists for a period of over eighty weeks. Also the book was chosen as a Literary Guild selection;
a Book-of-the-Month book; and a Reader's Digest Condensed Book. It was also published in paperback
by Popular Library. In April, 1961, Miss Lee was awarded the Alabama Library Association Award. In May,
1961, she was the first woman since 1942 to win the $500.00 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In addition to its
acclaim in the United States, To Kill A Mockingbird has received awards in foreign countries. For
example, in Britain it was selected British Book Society Top Book of the Year. It remained on the British
book lists as a top seller for many months. Besides this, it has been translated into several foreign
languages. This is an unusual amount of honor to be conferred on any novel; that an author's first work
should receive such recognition is truly extraordinary.
Background Of The Novel
In order to appreciate To Kill A Mockingbird fully, the reader should be familiar with some of the
background of its setting. The South in the colonial times grew into an area with large cotton plantations
and small cities. Because of the necessity for cheap labor to pick and seed the cotton, Negro slavery
took a strong hold there. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, there were over 500,000 slaves in
this country, with by far the greatest number in the South. As time passed, plantation owners formed a
landed aristocracy. The Negroes, though slaves, gained a measure of economic security. On the
perimeter of this were the poorer white farmers who either owned small pieces of land or worked as
With the invention of machines like the cotton gin, that could do the work of many men, the need for
slaves began to decrease. The profitability of slavery also decreased, and plantation owners often
treated Negroes with less kindness. There were two extremes. A few Southerners gave their slaves
freedom, while others totally disregarded them. The Civil War brought slavery to an end, but created
other, worse problems. The carpetbaggers who streamed into the South for political and economic gain
aggravated the wounds which the war had opened. The Negro was caught in the middle. On the one
hand, the Northerners claimed to be working for his benefit, but were really doing little. On the other,
the Southerners began to take out their bitterness for the Yankees on the Negroes. The colored man
represented two things to the Southerner. First, he was a slave who was now forcibly being given equal
rights with his former master. Second, he was the symbol of defeat, and a reminder of what the North
had done to the South. Therefore, he became an outcast, a scapegoat to be subjugated and
Post Civil War
As time passed and new methods for farming and cotton production were developed, many people in
Southern rural areas became extremely poor. Some moved to the city; others stayed on the land to try
to get whatever was possible out of it. Then, in 1929, the Great Depression hit the United States. The
farmers seemed to suffer most because they depended entirely upon their land for a living. Their crops
rotted, and they had little or no money for seed. But, in 1932, a new era was ushered into American
political and economic life. With Franklin Roosevelt, the federal government began to take an active
interest in the workingman. Laws regulating farm production, labor unions, and social security became a
part of the American way of life. A new social consciousness was arousing many people in the nation.
Novel In Its Setting
To Kill A Mockingbird is set against this background of 1930 Southern life. The Finches are a family who
once had a large, successful plantation. Their ancestors had been aristocratic ladies and gentlemen of
the South. Now they have been reduced to gentile poverty. They are better off by far than the
Cunninghams, for example, who have nothing but their land. Atticus Finch has his law career, and
Alexandra is still able to make a living at Finch's Landing. Actually, the extremes of poverty are
illustrated in the Ewells and the Negroes. The Ewells are poor, but they don't want to do anything about
it. The Negroes are poor because nobody will let them do anything about it. The Ewells won't work even
when they can. The Negroes will work, but the only jobs available to them are the menial, low-paying
Scout (Jean Louise) Finch narrates the story, beginning with a brief family history. Simon Finch, a
fur-trapping apothecary journeyed from England to Alabama, establishing the family which made its
living from cotton on Simon's homestead, Finch's Landing. The Civil War left the family only its land,
which was the source of family incomes until the twentieth century when Atticus Finch (Scout's father) and
his brother Jack left the land for careers in law and medicine. Atticus settled in Maycomb, the county
seat of Maycomb County, with a reasonably successful law practice about twenty miles from Finch's
Landing, where his sister Alexandra still lived.
Scout describes Maycomb as a lethargic, hot, colorless, narrow-minded town where she lives with her
father, brother Jem (four years older) and the family cook, Calpurnia. Scout's mother had died when she
When she was five, Scout and Jem found a new friend, Dill Harris ("Goin' on seven"), next door in Miss
Rachel Haverford's collard patch. Dill was Miss Rachel's nephew from Meridian, Mississippi, who spent
summers in Maycomb.
In the summertime, Jem, Scout and Dill usually played within the boundaries of Mrs. Henry Dubose's
house (two doors north) and the Radley place (three doors south). The Radley place fascinated the
children, because it was a popular subject of gossip and superstition in Maycomb. Arthur Radley had
gotten into trouble with the law when he was a boy. Instead of being sent to the state industrial school,
his father took custody of him within their house. He was not seen again for fifteen years. Many legends
grew up about the Radley house and about what went on inside. Miss Stephanie Crawford, a
neighborhood gossip, added fuel to the fire - a fire which included stories of crime, mutilation, curses
Dill was fascinated by these stories, and gave Scout and Jem the idea of making Boo Radley come out
of seclusion. When Dill, always eager for some new adventure, dared Jem to run up to the house and
touch it, Jem thought things over for a few days. Finally, filled with fear, he accepted the dare. He ran
up, touched the house, and ran back. As the three children stared at the old house, they thought they
saw an inside shutter move.
Many themes and plot-themes emerge in Chapter 1. Great emphasis is placed on the world of Scout,
Jem, and Dill - a small world bounded by a few houses and composed of only a few people. From the
limited knowledge of this small childish world at the novel's opening, Jem and Scout broaden with the
passing of years and events. By the time the novel reaches its conclusion, they will have learned much
more about human nature. Also, Miss Lee emphasizes the Radley family. They are the focal point for
the development of numerous themes to come. For example, when old Mr. Radley died, Calpurnia did
something she had never been known to do before. She spoke evil about a white man when she said,
"There goes the meanest man ever God blew breath into." Finally, there are the themes relating to
family and the Maycomb setting. They increase in importance from chapter to chapter.
Chapters 2 and 3
Scout At School
Dill returned to Mississippi at the end of the summer. Although she was looking forward to school more
than anything in her life, Scout's first day at school was a disappointment. When Miss Caroline tried to
teach reading, Scout was bored. Much to Miss Caroline's dismay, Scout was already accomplished at
reading and writing. She told Scout to tell her father not to teach her anything more, because it would
interfere with her reading. Later, at lunch time, Walter Cunningham had no food with him. When the
teacher tried to give him a quarter, the boy would not take it. Scout made the mistake of trying to
explain the reason to Miss Caroline. The Cunninghams were poor country folks who had been hit hard
by the Depression and were too proud to accept charity. For her trouble, Scout got her fingers cracked.
Thinking that Walter Cunningham was the cause of her difficulty, Scout tried to beat him up. Jem would
not let her. Instead, he invited the boy to lunch at their house.
That afternoon, Miss Caroline saw a cootie crawl out of Burris Ewell's hair. She was shocked by this and
told the boy to go home and wash his hair. The boy really did not care, however, and became abusive,
since he was in school only because the truant officer had made him come. He did not plan to return.
That night Scout had a talk with her father. She said she hoped that Atticus would allow her to stay
home from school like Burris Ewell. However, he explained to her that the Ewells were a different kind of
people. They did not care about learning and had been a disgrace to Maycomb for generations. Then
Atticus made a bargain with his daughter. He told Scout that he would continue to read to her every
night provided she would go back to school and promise not to tell her teacher about it.
Comment These two chapters can be considered together for they contain the story of Scout's first
experience away from her narrow world at home. The reader must remember that although she was
bright for her age, Scout was only six. Whatever she had learned thus far, she had learned at home
from her father, her brother, Calpurnia, and a few neighbors. Therefore, she had much to learn from
and about the rest of the world. For example, Scout was a town girl and not a farm girl like many of the
other children in the class. Miss Caroline, the teacher, was not from Maycomb, and could not be
expected to know or to understand the peculiarities of the people of Maycomb. The little girl could not
comprehend why Miss Caroline did not have a better understanding. With her limited experience, Scout
thought that people were alike everywhere. Therefore, she thought that her teacher should automatically
know that the Cunninghams
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