Harper Lee’s Novel Achievement

With To Kill a Mockingbird, published 50 years ago, Lee gave America a story for the ages. Just don’t ask her about it

The success of To Kill a Mockingbird overwhelmed Harper Lee. (Donald Uhrbrock / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)
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From this low point, however, Lee seems to have found her way to a place of relative peace. She did squawk a few years ago when the museum crossed a line in her mind and started selling a collection of recipes called Calpurnia’s Cookbook, after the black housekeeper in the novel. (The book was withdrawn.) But it seems that Lee has come to accept that she will publish only one book, and to enjoy that she exceeded her expectations in doing so. “When you’re at the top,” she once told her cousin Dickie Williams, “there is only one way to go.”

Lee will in all likelihood stand aside and let Mockingbird’s 50th anniversary happen. Truth be told, Monroeville is a charming place, where the palpable pride in its native daughter’s achievement tends to make up for the occasional crassness. Besides, Monroe--villians have been exploiting Lee’s work for decades: when the movie came out in ’62, Charles J. Shields reports in his biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (2006), the local theater offered $10 to the first five people who showed up with live mockingbirds. Jane Ellen Clark, director of the Old Courthouse Museum, notes that pilgrims started flocking spontaneously to Monroeville in 1960, as soon as the book was published. “All these people who said it was their favorite book would save up for the trip and find the town,” she says. For thousands each year, “this was their vacation, and we created the museum because we wanted to give them something to see.” Every spring since 1991, the town has staged a several-times-a-week theatrical production of To Kill a Mockingbird with local volunteer actors in the roles. Act I takes place on the town square, weather permitting, and Act II inside the courthouse. If the air conditioning isn’t working, it can get steamy in that cavernous chamber, especially up in the “colored balcony” (as it was called in the ’30s), where I saw last year’s production. But if you’ve got a bottle of water, inspirational or otherwise, it makes for a uniquely American evening, right down to the realization that, as you’re standing and applauding for the sometimes contradictory notions of small-town values and racial tolerance, Harper Lee would prefer to be a thousand miles to the north, cheering, “Let’s Go, Mets!”

Charles Leerhsen wrote Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America.


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