The Big Read Blog (Archive)

WHAT PAGE ARE YOU ON?

September 26, 2008
Washington, DC

Did you know that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most requested books on The Big Read list? From the To Kill a Mockingbird reader's guide, here's the story of how Harper Lee almost didn't finish her iconic novel.

Any claims for To Kill a Mockingbird as a book that changed history could not have seemed more farfetched one winter night in 1958, as Nelle Harper Lee huddled in her outer-borough New York City apartment trying to finesse her unruly, episodic manuscript into some semblance of 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. Lippincott's formidable Tay Hohoff promptly sent her outside to gather all the pages back -- thus rescuing To Kill a Mockingbird from yet another slush pile.

The novel has its origins in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama -- the small, Southern town upon which the fictional Maycomb is based. 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 after 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 the novel 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 if invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere 19 ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird."

Eight-eight 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 slightly windier night.

Check out http://www.neabigread.org/events.php for today's great events featuring To Kill a Mockingbird.