Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird still resonates with readers 60 years after its publication. The coming-of-age tale about racial injustice in the South was a phenomenal success from the start, and has only become more popular with time.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird drew on Harper Lee’s childhood in Alabama.
While To Kill A Mockingbird is not autobiographical, there are similarities between the novel and Lee’s life. The book is set in Maycomb, Alabama, the fictional name for Monroeville, where Lee grew up. Like the main character Scout, Lee was a tomboy who was uncomfortable with traditional femininity. She and Scout would have been the same age and her brother Edwin was four years older, just like Scout's brother Jem. She even gave the family her mother’s maiden name, Finch.
2. Harper Lee based To Kill a Mockingbird’s Dill on Truman Capote.
Lee modeled the neighbor boy Dill after Capote. As a child, Capote—the author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast At Tiffany’s—lived next door to Lee. They played together and even shared Lee’s typewriter. Both children were outside the social circles of their close-knit Southern town. As Gerald Clarke wrote in Capote: A Biography, “Nelle was too rough for most other girls, and Truman was too soft for most other boys.” Capote’s first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms, has a tomboy character resembling Lee. Her name is Idabel Thompkins.
3. Harper Lee grew up in the courtroom.
Like the character Atticus, Lee’s father, AC Lee, was a lawyer. Soft-spoken and dignified, he defended two Black men accused of murder and lost the case. Lee spent much of her childhood in the Monroeville courthouse. “Her father was a lawyer, and she and I used to go to trials all the time as children," Capote said. "We went to the trials instead of going to the movies." Lee herself went to law school, but hated it and dropped out.
4. Harper Lee may have modeled To Kill a Mockingbird’s Boo Radley after a childhood neighbor.
In the book, Boo Radley is a recluse who leaves presents for the children in a tree. Lee may have modeled him after a real man, Alfred “Son” Boulware, who lived in Monroeville when the author was a child. According to Capote, “He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything [Lee] wrote about it is absolutely true.”
5. Harper Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird.
Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman in the 1950s. Set 20 years after To Kill A Mockingbird, it contains many of the same characters and themes. An editor who read the manuscript loved a flashback about Scout’s childhood and told Lee to write a book from the child’s point of view. Lee then started To Kill A Mockingbird. Go Set A Watchman was thought to be lost until Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, found it in the author’s archives in 2014.
6. Harper Lee was able to write To Kill a Mockingbird because of a gift from her friends.
After withdrawing from law school, Lee moved to New York and worked as an airline reservationist. One Christmas, her friends Joy and Michael Brown gave her a gift: enough money to write for one year. In an essay for McCall’s in 1961, Lee wrote that they told her to quit her job and write whatever she wanted, no strings attached. “Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them.”
7. To Kill A Mockingbird changed considerably during editing.
Lee’s agent sent To Kill A Mockingbird to 10 publishers and all of them turned it down. Finally, the publisher Lippincott accepted the manuscript, even though it needed a lot of work. “There were dangling threads of a plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, and an end—that was inherent in the beginning,” editor Tay Hohoff said. “It is an indication of how seriously we were impressed by the author that we signed a contract at that point.”
There followed “a long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over again,” Lee said. It was published in 1960.
8. Harper Lee thought To Kill A Mockingbird would fail.
In 1964, Lee said she “[N]ever expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I didn't expect the book to sell in the first place.” But the novel was an immediate success. Not only was it a best-seller, it was followed up with an Oscar-winning movie starring Gregory Peck. It also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Today, the book sells almost a million copies a year, more than fellow 20th century classics The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye.
9. Truman Capote did not write To Kill A Mockingbird.
At some point, a rumor started that Capote wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, or at least edited it. Aside from the fact that Lee’s writing sounds nothing like Capote’s, he only saw the manuscript once. In 1959, Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas to research In Cold Blood. During that trip, she showed him a finished version of Mockingbird, which was about to go to print. Since the book was done, it would have been impossible for Capote to edit it, let alone write it.
10. It's said Truman Capote was jealous of To Kill a Mockingbird’s success.
While Capote initially seemed supportive, his friendship with Lee soured as her novel was increasingly lauded. According to Lee’s sister Alice, “Truman became very jealous because Nelle Harper got a Pulitzer and he did not. He expected In Cold Blood to bring him one, and he got involved with the drugs and heavy drinking and all. And that was it. It was not Nelle Harper dropping him. It was Truman going away from her.”
11. Harper Lee hated the spotlight.
When asked about her success in 1964, Lee called it frightening, saying her reaction was “sheer numbness. It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold.” While she never became the “Jane Austen of south Alabama” as she once hoped, she did work on a true crime novel in the 1970s. The book remains unfinished, though a 2019 book called Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee picks up the case.