National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

Writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer. There are people who write, but I think they’re quite different from people who must write.


Harper Lee (Bettmann/Corbis)

Josephine Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature and encourage each American to discover the transformative joys of reading. Here's your host, poet and former Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia.

Dana Gioia: Today, we will visit Maycomb, Alabama, as we discuss the classic 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

 

Anne Twomey reads from To Kill a Mockingbird...

“Scout,” said Atticus, “when summer comes you'll have to keep your head about far worse things [...] This case, Tom Robinson's case, is something that goes to the essence of the man’s conscience—Scout, I couldn't go to church and worship God if I didn't try to help that man.”

“Atticus, you must be wrong....”

“How's that?”

"Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you're wrong....”

“They're certainly entitled to think that, and they're entitled to full respect for their opinions. [...] but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

David Baker: It's about prejudice, it's about pride. There is that duality that all human beings have, that nobody's essentially all bad or all good and I thought that more than anything else, she was able to capture that.

Sandra Day O’Connor: The underlying theme is the sometimes treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system in the South.

Robert Duvall: There's about more than a slice of life in the South, about a family, and about a good father who is concerned about his family but he's also legitimately concerned about his community.

Curtis Sittenfeld: I would say that it's about a lot of things. I mean, obviously it's a lot about sort of issues of racial justice and injustice and it's about small town life. It's about this sort of growing consciousness of a child. And I think that's probably why it works, because it has different things to offer different people who read it.

Gioia: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is that rare American novel that can be discovered with excitement in adolescence and reread in adulthood with equal enthusiasm. The novel is Lee’s only published book, yet it has achieved staggering critical and popular success.

Harper Lee’s full name is Nelle Harper Lee. Nelle is the name of her grandmother, Ellen spelled backwards. Young Nelle grew up in a small town in Alabama, which she used as the model for Maycomb County in To Kill a Mockingbird. Charles J. Shields has written the first comprehensive biography of the author titled, Mockingbird, A Portrait of Harper Lee.

Charles J. Shields: She's from Monroeville, Alabama which is south of Montgomery about a hundred miles. It's landlocked area. There's no river there. When the railroad stopped running in the 1960s, Monroeville sort of drifted back into its rural past. It had a boom time when Nelle was growing up. When her father was making his career in the 30s, and the 40s, and the 50s, Monroeville was really doing well, but eventually it faded back into what it was in the reconstruction years almost in terms of it energy.

Elizabeth Spencer: I think if you put Carrollton, Mississippi—where I was brought up, a small town—and renamed it Maycomb, Alabama, nobody would even pause in the day, they'd just be like that.

Gioia: Novelist, Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer: These small towns in the South, 70 years ago or even a little more, were pretty much the same. I used to think, you could just go in a Southern town with a video camera and a tape recorder and you'd have a novel after week.

Gioia: When Universal Studios decided to film To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee declined the offer to write the screenplay. Southern playwright Horton Foote took the job.

Horton Foote: I just felt it could have been set in my little town in Texas. We had a large black population. We had all the prejudices that the book exposes and, I think, a lot of the virtues which were Southern virtues that were this sense of place, this sense of really belonging to something and this essential conflict of being surrounded by a problem that we still haven't solved. And I felt very close to all the characters, and I thought she did a remarkable job of getting that kind of small town Southern feeling of that period in time.

 

Anne Twomey reads from To Kill a Mockingbird...

We strolled silently down the sidewalk, listening to porch swings creaking with the weight of the neighborhood, listening to the soft night murmurs of the grown people on our street.

O’Connor: I think the author wanted very much to bring vividly to the reader small town life in the South.

Gioia: Former Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor:

O’Connor: It was typical in those towns that people didn't have anything to do. She grew up not having any entertainment. There was no television. They would see a movie very occasionally. Children had to make their own fun and they had to live by their own imaginations. Actually, that's not unlike the life that I myself led growing up in a remote cattle ranch without other people, without television, without diversions and again, you had to make your own fun and entertainment.

Gioia: Maybe the artistic success of To Kill a Mockingbird is most evident in that millions of readers including Horton Foote, Elizabeth Spencer, and Justice O’Connor believed that the novel describes the small towns in which they grew up. Not surprisingly, there are several elements of To Kill a Mockingbird that mirror the author’s own life. By all accounts, that curious and precocious little girl, Scout, is an accurate self portrait of the young Harper Lee.

Shields: She was unlike her classmates in that everything seemed to move too slowly for her. In school, she was very bored by the curriculum. I think math was the only thing that really intrigued her.

Gioia: Once again biographer, Charles Shields.

Shields: She was a nonconformist from the time she was very small. Her fourth grade teacher was shocked on one of the first days of school when Harper Lee called her by her first name. And when she was abraded about it, Lee said, "Well, I call my father by his first name." She never dropped that aspect of being a square peg in a round hole. She was a person who marched to her own drummer and in that regard, she is very similar to Scout in the novel. Scout is Harper Lee "to a tee."

Spencer: I think I was a lot like Scout in some ways.

Gioia: Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer: I had a lot of big boys around me. My cousins, my brother was older and my cousins were boys and I just wanted to be one in the group and play with them and everything and of course, I was always being shoved away. I know what she felt and what she means. She's a little tomboy!

Gioia: Novelist, Curtis Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld: That's probably another humorous element is Scout being this kind of aggressive tomboy who beats up and threatens actual boys. And she has the episode where she is swearing all the time and saying, "Pass me the damn ham," at the dinner table. I think there are a lot of moments that are kind of light that temper the overall seriousness of the book.

 

Anne Twomey reads from To Kill a Mockingbird...

The beginning of that summer boded well: Jem could do as he pleased; Calpurnia would do until Dill came. She seemed glad to see me when I appeared in the kitchen, and by watching her I began to think there was some skill involved in being a girl.

But summer came and Dill was not there. [...]

The fact that I had a permanent fiancé was little compensation for his absence: I had never thought about it, but summer was Dill by the fishpool smoking string, Dill’s eyes alive with complicated plans to make Boo Radley emerge; Summer was the swiftness with which Dill would reach up and kiss me when Jem was not looking, the longings we sometimes felt each other feel. With him, life was routine; without him, life was unbearable. I stayed miserable for two days.

Shields: Well, Dill is modeled on Truman Capote who lived next door, literally next door to Nelle the way that Dill does.

Gioia: Once again, Charles Shields.

Shields: And Dill’s circumstances are very similar to Truman’s. Dill is living there because his parents, as he says in the book, don't want him and Truman’s parents didn't want him and they deposited Truman like a little piece of collateral damage with his relatives, right there next door to Nelle.

Gioia: Harper Lee’s friendship with writer Truman Capote was perhaps the most influential relationship of her life. They wrote stories together as children, and later in the 1960s, they rose together to the top of the American literary scene. Several enormously talented writers were emerging from the South at that time, among them was Elizabeth Spencer whose novel, Light in the Piazza was also adapted as a film in 1962. Spencer speaks here about Lee’s place in that celebrated group of writers.

Spencer: I think around that time when she was growing up and then became a writer was about the time a great many fine talents hit the scene of Southern literature. There was not only Harper Lee but her friend Dill is actually Truman Capote, as you know, and then there was Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. They all seemed to burst into a prominence. There were very different and very fine writers at that time. Harper Lee has a relatively plain style. It's plain and declarative and just tells you what she wants you to know.

Gioia: Lee attended Huntington College in Montgomery, Alabama and later the University of Alabama where she published stories and articles. Some of which explored the racial issues and small town culture that she would later present in To Kill a Mockingbird. Following in the footsteps of her father and older sister, Lee turned her attention to studying law. Her father was a well respected lawyer in Monroeville, as well as the model, of course, for Atticus Finch in the novel. Lucky for us, Harper Lee had a change of heart concerning her career.

Shields: Nelle announced that she didn't want to continue, that she loathed law, couldn't stand it. She only took it because it was a line of least resistance and instead she was going to go off to New York to become a writer. I am sure her father suspected that it was at Truman’s urging that she was going to do it because Truman in 1948 had published Other Voices, Other Rooms. He was the l’enfant terrible of literature at that time in the American scene and so Nelle probably thought, I can do that too, I mean after all, childhood friends, we wrote stories together and Truman probably encouraged her to come to New York.

Gioia: After six years of working menial jobs in New York and writing in the evenings, Lee signed her first book contract with a major publisher, but she discovered that pulling together her sketches and ideas into a finished novel wasn't easy.

Shields: So, for two and a half years living almost entirely on her advance alone, she worked on this novel. At one point, she got so fed up that she got up from her desk went over to the window and threw it out into the snow, the entire manuscript, she was in tears. She would spend an entire day just to get a page done. She called her editor, Tay Hohoff at Lippincott, and told her what she had done and Tay told her to march out there and get it all back.

Gioia: When the novel was completed, everyone who read it was thrilled. Even before To Kill a Mockingbird was published in July 1960, four national book clubs had already selected it for their readers. It was destined to become a best seller and an instant classic.

Shields: Sales soared. The following May she won the Pulitzer Prize, and within probably about five years the book had sold three to five million copies.

Gioia: This music is from Elmer Bernstein’s lyrical score for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

You're listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we are discussing To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

One of the most memorable characters in modern American literature is Atticus Finch—the brave, affectionate father and lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel is suffused with his calm wisdom and subtle humor, as he balances the demands of an explosive legal case with the constant duties of being a single parent.

Once again, Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer: The whole center of the book is the love that the author, who is Scout, the little girl—I think that's clearly Harper Lee—and that her love for her father is the motivating reason for writing it and it's the core of the book to me. Little by little you begin to see that he is the moving spirit in the book and with these children that he is getting through to them.

Gioia: Atticus takes on the defense of Tom Robinson—a black man who has been unjustly accused of rape by a white woman. Despite heavy pressure from his fellow townspeople, Atticus stays true to his profession and to his conscience. He defends his client to the best of his ability.

O’Connor: He became a symbol for what we lawyers like to think we are.

Gioia: Justice O’Connor.

O’Connor: In this case, we know from the story that Atticus was representing an innocent man. It's obvious that he cared deeply about the case and hoped to get the right outcome from an all white jury. He represents, I think, the best of the legal profession. So, we like what we read, if we're lawyers, we like to read about an Atticus.

Spencer: One of the major themes of the book, since he's a small town lawyer, is the idea of justice—it is seems to pervade everything.

Gioia: Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer: Sometimes it seems to be defeated but on the whole in many, many instances his word is getting through and his feelings about justice. Wonderfully sympathetic man, almost too good to be true.

Baker: There was something that modified the ugliness of much of what was going on.

Gioia: Musician, educator, and NEA jazz master, David Baker.

Baker: There was always the constant presence of Atticus and he was somebody I was drawn to very, very strongly. The way he was portrayed in the book was such that he was almost Solomonic in his wisdom and that was the stabilizing influence for me throughout this book.

Gioia: Actor, Robert Duvall.

Robert Duvall: Probably the apex of his life comes along with this racial trial and he rises to the occasion and becomes the difinity of good man that he becomes because of that and the community sees that. I think for the most part black and white see that. So, I think he fulfills that and he fulfills himself as a family man which is an important thing. You gotta be a man first before you're a professional.

 

Anne Twomey reads from To Kill a Mockingbird...

Atticus sighed. “I'm simply defending a Negro—his name's Tom Robinson. He lives in that little settlement beyond the town dump. [...] Scout, you aren't old enough to understand some things yet, but there's been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn't do much about defending this man.” [...]

“If you shouldn't be defendin' him, then why are you doin' it?”

“For a number of reasons,” said Atticus. “The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell you or Jem not to do something again.”

“You mean, if you didn't defend that man, Jem and me wouldn't have to mind you any more?”

“That's about right.”

“Why?”

“Because I could never ask you to mind me again. Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one's mine, I guess.” [...]

“Atticus, are we going to win it?”

“No, honey.”

“Then, why—”

“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

Gioia: In 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted for the screen. It is considered one of the truest literary adaptations in film history. When Lee declined to write the screenplay, the producer turned to a prominent Southern dramatist.

Once again, Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer: It was enormously fortunate—not that it didn't deserve the fortune it got—but Horton Foote, whom I know was playwright and a scriptwriter, and he has done some marvelous scripts and he knows the South. He's from Texas but his touch and his approach to the scenes in the novel are so true and then the second stroke of great good fortune, entirely deserved also, was getting Gregory Peck to play the father. I think that the movie completes, not completes... but reflects the book truly.

Gioia: Screen writer, Horton Foote.

Foote: I knew that house they lived in. I knew the kind of neighborhood they had. Played the same games. I don't think we's ever got inside of a tire, but that curiosity that children have, and the fantasizing. I had my own Boo Radley. Not the same circumstances, but the same result. I was in terror every time I had to pass the house.

Duvall: It was a wonderful experience and it was kind of the blessed thing that that was my first film to be in.

Gioia: Robert Duvall made his film debut as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Duvall: I can remember distinctly, you know, when I lived at 83rd and West End. It was either the day I left or a few days before I left, I got a telegram in the mailbox from Harper Lee. It said, "Hey there, Boo." You know, like, congratulations.

Gioia: Scout, Jem and Dill have a constant fascination with the seemingly sinister recluse, Boo Radley. They invent games and concoct intricate plans to make Boo Radley come out. It isn't until the end of the novel that we finally see Boo when he comes to the children’s rescue in a moment of crisis.

Robert Duvall.

Duvall: It's a pretty interesting part. My stepdaughters when they were little, they couldn't watch it—they got scared. But once again, he's not a scary guy. He appears through the eyes of the kids as somebody who is scary and spooky, but I think he was a pretty kind of a landmark character.

Spencer: He's a pervading loving spirit. He's like an angel.

Gioia: Elizabeth Spencer.

Spencer: And you don't ever see him until the last. They have all these theories about him and all that. I remember we used to have houses at home that were mysterious and we used to dare each other to go up and touch 'em, like they do in the book. I'd go up, knock on the door, and then run. I told you this town could be Carrollton, Mississippi! We had mysterious people, or places we weren't supposed to go and of course the minute they tell you not to go there, you're gonna want to go there. Like he says, I'd rather you shoot at tin cans, but you're gonna bound to be shooting at birds.

Duvall: He is the mockingbird and he's the person that lives next door that is a bit of a recluse to say the least and nobody really knows much about him and that whole aspect of that mystery and a possibility of being a bad guy is magnified through the perception of the kids. And he lives there, and he leaves things for the children. From a distance, he obviously cares for them but he didn't know how to relate.

 

Anne Twomey reads from To Kill a Mockingbird...

“When he gave us our air-rifles Atticus wouldn't teach us to shoot. Uncle Jack instructed us in the rudiments thereof; he said Atticus wasn't interested in guns. Atticus said to Jem one day, “I'd rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you'll go after birds. Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Ms. Maudie about it.

"Your father's right," she said. "Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people’s gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Gioia: To Kill a Mockingbird has had an enduring influence on all kinds of people.

O’Connor: I think that it strongly influenced many young people to go to law school to try to become lawyers—be an Atticus.

Gioia: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

O’Connor: I had a splendid young woman law clerk who grew up in a very tiny town in Northern Utah, not unlike the little town that we see in To Kill a Mockingbird. She read that book and it changed her life. She knew after reading that book what she wanted to do. Her parents were not able to afford to send her to college and she took on two jobs to attend the State University where she was a star student and inspired always by this book.

Foote: I think it's a story of humanity and it transcends any kind of didactic things like themes they're always putting on it.

Gioia: Horton Foote.

Foote: I think Harper was simply observing the world that she knew and it found its own kind of thematic statement. I think the book has made a great contribution to the understanding between the races.

Baker: I grew up in the Indianapolis at a time while Indianapolis was completely segregated.

Gioia: Once again, David Baker.

Baker: It never even crossed my mind that anything was different, you know, and it was only later that I was really made aware that there was a world out there where that was no sanguine about relationships. The thing that captured me in the book is how much other people go through this—whether they're white or black. You know, to me, the reason why I think that all the great books are great because somehow or another they transcend their time even though in this particular book, it's a time which we hope will never be replicated again in the United States.

Gioia: Curtis Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld: Part of its huge appeal is probably the fact that it's very accessible, but then it also has these sort of large ideas or themes so it gives you, like, small, personal details about what it's like to live in a little town in Alabama. But then it also feels important, and that's relatively unusual for book to be able to strike that balance so skillfully.

Spencer: This is one of those times when a book just hits a bull’s eye and the bull’s eye, I think, is the heart and you can grow up on a book like this. Too few books have a basis in love.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by The National Endowment for the Arts. It was written and produced by Dan Stone, post production by Soraya Mohammed. Readings of To Kill a Mockingbird were by Anne Twomey. Special thanks to Philip Brunelle and Erika Koss, and to the Universal Music Publishing Group for the use of Elmer Bernstein’s score from the film of To Kill a Mockingbird. Original music was by Clint Hoover and Pat Donahue. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

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