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Culture Re-View: Harper Lee's masterpiece 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is published

Harper Lee at a ceremony honouring new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor ceremony, 2007
Harper Lee at a ceremony honouring new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor ceremony, 2007 Copyright Rob Carr/The AP
Copyright Rob Carr/The AP
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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On July 11, 1960, the world famous novel was released, instantly captivating readers and cementing its position as a timeless classic in American literature.

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Harper Lee’s iconic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ may have been published 63 years ago but its themes and topics still resonate today.

With her novel, Lee crafted a poignant story set during the Great Depression, loosely based on observations of her own family and neighbours during her childhood in Monroeville, Alabama.

‘Mockingbird’ explores themes of racial injustice and moral courage, following the father of the narrator Scout, Atticus Finch, is tasked with defending a Black man falsely accused of rape.

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Harper Lee smokes a cigarette as she sits on the porch of her parents home, Monroeville, Alabama in 1961Don Uhrbrock/Getty Images

While not entirely autobiographical, the book draws inspiration from Lee's own experiences, particularly with its nod to her own father's valiant defence of two Black men accused of murder in 1919.

After the pair were convicted, hanged and mutilated, her father, Amasa Coleman Lee never took on another criminal case, going on to become the editor and publisher of the Monroeville newspaper.

Brynn Anderson/AP
A themed birdhouse sits near the town square in the hometown of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' author Harper LeeBrynn Anderson/AP

‘Mockingbird’ garnered critical acclaim, although some critics questioned the narrative sophistication of Scout's voice.

It was embraced by the public, becoming a Book of the Month selection and winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1961, following 41 weeks on the bestseller list. Translated into numerous languages, the novel has constantly remained in print.

The success of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ extended beyond the printed page when it was adapted into a film in 1962.

AP
Gregory Peck with Mary Badham who played his daughter in the film version of 'Mockingbird', 1963AP

Starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the movie received widespread acclaim and won three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Peck. Lee developed a close friendship with Peck during the film's production and gifted him her father's pocket watch, which he had with him the night he accepted the Oscar.

Despite the book's immense popularity, Lee chose to withdraw from the public eye, eschewing celebrity status and declining interviews about her work.

Bettmann Archive
Gregory Peck and Harper Lee on the set of 'Mockingbird', 1962Bettmann Archive

In her later years, Lee preferred a quiet life in Monroeville, with rare excursions, such as her trip to Los Angeles in 2005 to receive a literary award. She was honoured with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 and the National Medal of Arts in 2010.

In 2015, the literary world was taken by surprise by the publication of Lee's long-lost manuscript, ‘Go Set a Watchman’, which she had written in 1957.

Controversy arose regarding Lee's authorisation for its release, prompting an investigation by the state of Alabama.

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Harper Lee with former president George W. Bush after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2007Ron Edmonds/AP

There were rumours that she had been taken advantage of and was pressured into allowing publication. 

Ultimately, it emerged that the book was an early draft of ‘Mockingbird’, as opposed to a distinct sequel. After questions over why the novel had been published without any context, no evidence of coercion or elder abuse was found.

Brynn Anderson/AP
Harper Lee's two books on display in in Monroeville, Alabama following her death in 2016Brynn Anderson/AP

Harper Lee passed away on 9 February 2016, at the age of 89, leaving behind a literary legacy that continues to captivate readers to this day.

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