Sunday, July 11, 2010

An American classic

Fifty years ago today, Americans were introduced to Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch, as well as Boo Radley and Tom Robinson, in the pages of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Today it is one of the most widely read, widely taught and widely loved books ever written. The 1962 film, with Gregory Peck (in photo, with Mary Badham as Scout) as Atticus -- the upstanding small-town Southern lawyer who defends an innocent but sure-to-be-convicted black man -- has also gone a long way toward ensuring the story's enduring popularity.

I was assigned Mockingbird as a freshman in high school, and it was the first time I'd read something where I wanted desperately to meet the characters. It also was the first time that I'd read faster and faster in the middle of the novel -- because I was so interested in the story -- but then slowed down toward the final pages, as I didn't want the magic to end. Mockingbird made me want to write.

Harper Lee, now 84, never wrote another novel, and published only a few small items in the last five decades. Someone -- I can't find the quote now -- once commented on the Pulitzer Prize winner's dearth of writing after her wildly successful debut, saying that Lee put the truth so clearly and absolutely on the page that she never needed to write another word. Here is one piece of that truth, as Atticus speaks to his children: "...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."

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