Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is considered among the most influential books in history, died two years ago this month at age 89 in Monroeville, the same Alabama town in which she was born on April 28, 1926.
Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant success—despite a review in The Atlantic that panned it as “sugar-water served with humor”—securing Lee a Pulitzer Prize the following year. Fifty years later, it had sold some 30 million copies and was a staple of American literature, read by more than three-fourths of American students. It remained Lee’s only novel until 2015, when Go Set a Watchman (Mockingbird’s sequel) was released, amidst some controversy.
To honor Lee and her most famous work, Course Hero published an infographic charting the main themes and complex relationships Lee weaves in Mockingbird, a first-person coming-of-age tale examining race and class in small-town Alabama during the Great Depression.
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The novel, which involves the narrator’s lawyer father, Atticus Finch, defending a black man who is falsely accused and convicted, was released in 1960 during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. The unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education calling for the integration of American schools had been issued six years earlier, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had blocked the doors of Central High School to black students three years earlier, and the first sit-ins occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960.
Against this backdrop and the nonviolent civil disobedience against injustice by civil rights protesters, the book resonated with readers of the 1960s, and more than a half century later it remains a thought-provoking — and even timely — tale of cultural struggle in the United States.
Lee was the youngest of four children born to Frances Cunningham Finch and Amasa Coleman Lee. Certain aspects of her upbringing seem to have planted the seeds for the characters and story found in the novel. Much like Scout, Lee was a professed tomboy whose father — thought to be the inspiration for Atticus Finch — was also a lawyer and legislator who had once defended two black men accused of murdering a white man. She would often sit in on court proceedings in which her father practiced.
It’s often speculated that Lee’s childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Truman Streckfus Persons (who would grow up to be famed author Truman Capote), was the inspiration for Dill (Charles Baker Harris).
Nelle Harper Lee finished high school and enrolled in Huntingdon College in 1944. The following year, she transferred to the University of Alabama and entered law school, determined to follow her father into the legal profession. After spending a year as an exchange student at Oxford in England, she returned home, telling her family that writing, not law, was the field she wanted to pursue.
And so in 1949, six months before finishing her law degree, she moved to New York City to pursue a literary career. There, she fell in again with her childhood friend Truman Capote. To support herself while writing, she served as Capote’s research assistant, traveling with him to Holcomb, Kansas, where they worked on Capote’s nonfiction narrative, In Cold Blood.
Lee struck her own stride in 1960 with the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. Despite the critical and commercial success, Lee didn’t publish any more books until 2015, when Go Set a Watchman, set 20 years after Mockingbird, was published more than 50 years after she had written the manuscript.