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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee


When To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in 1960, interviewers who met the author often felt as if they were coming face to face with a grownup version of Scout Finch, the six-year-old heroine of the novel. Although she was almost thirty-five years old, Harper Lee was a youthful looking woman with angular features and a casual, short-cropped hairstyle that marked her as a former tomboy.

Appearances were not deceiving. A brief glance at the facts of Lee's life shows that reviewers were right to suspect that the portrait of Scout was to a large degree autobiographical. Harper Lee grew up in the deep South in Monroeville, Alabama, a place very much like the imaginary town of Maycomb described in the novel. She was born in 1926, which would make her roughly the same age as Scout in the mid-1930s when the novel takes place. Like Atticus Finch in the story, Miss Lee's father Amasa C. Lee was a small-town lawyer with an unusual first name. The Lee family was descended from the famous Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee, and so- like the Finches in the novel- had every reason to take pride in its ancestry. Finally, Lee's mother's maiden name was Frances Finch.

As a child Lee was called by her first name, Nelle, a name she dropped in her adult years. She was only seven years old when she decided she wanted to become a writer, but it was many years before her dream was fulfilled. In the meantime Miss Lee studied law, following in the footsteps of her father and older sister. She attended the University of Alabama, and spent a year in England as an exchange student at Oxford University.

In 1950 Lee left the university without completing the requirements for a law degree. She moved to New York City where she worked as an airlines reservation clerk. Her childhood desire to become a writer now returned and she spent evenings and spare time working on essays and short stories. Eventually she got up the courage to show a few of her best pieces to a New York literary agent. The agent liked one of the stories and suggested that it be expanded into a novel.

On the basis of this encouragement, Lee decided to quit her airlines job and devote herself full time to writing. The decision meant she would have to sacrifice some comforts. She moved into a shabby apartment that did not even have hot water. She made do with whatever furniture she could pick up free or construct from orange crates and other discards. She was not able to work without interruption, however. Just as she was making some progress on her novel, her father suffered a sudden illness. From then on she made extended visits back home, dividing her time between New York and Alabama.

It turned out that the trips to Alabama were not a bad thing as far as her novel was concerned. Being home again brought Lee closer to the scene of her childhood memories of her relationship with her father, and the time she had spent with him at the courthouse. There was even an old house in her neighborhood where it had been rumored that the owner was a mysterious recluse, rather like the Boo Radley character in To Kill a Mockingbird.

While much of the background for the novel came from Lee's childhood experiences, the plot was primarily drawn from her imagination. As a result of her study of law, Lee was familiar with numerous cases involving a black man convicted on the basis of little or no solid evidence of raping a white woman. These incidents were transformed by the author into the fictional case of Tom Robinson that makes up the central portion of the novel. Lee later told an interviewer that she never thought of her years studying law as wasted effort, since she was forced to develop her skills in logical thinking and clear writing. Also, legal cases provided her with a fertile source of story ideas.


ECC [To Kill a Mockingbird Contents] []
© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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