On July 11, 1960, an unknown author by the name of Nelle Harper Lee got to see her first-ever book—a little southern tale called To Kill a Mockingbird—come to life in print. Her publisher told her she’d be lucky if she sold a few thousand copies.
“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird,” says Lee. “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers.”
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Fast-forward 56 years and it’s safe to say neither her publisher nor Lee herself could ever have imagined the monumental success of To Kill a Mockingbird, beautifully illustrated in Course Hero’s infographic. The book earned Lee a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has sold more than 30 million copies (with about a million more sold every year).
Like many authors, Lee used real people from her own life as inspiration for the beloved cast of characters in her book. But who were those people, and what do they represent—not only within the context of the story but also the turbulent social climate of the book’s release?
The young protagonist, Scout, is practically the fictional clone of Lee herself, who was once dubbed Queen of the Tomboys. Both grew up in a segregated southern town. Both had lawyer fathers who unsuccessfully defended black men in court. Lee even used her mother’s maiden name “Finch” for her book’s family.
Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was the model for Atticus. Both men were lawyers embroiled in a scandalous trial involving black men, and both lost their cases—but unlike Atticus, the loss was too great for Amasa, who left criminal law altogether. Atticus was viewed as a moral guide for Maycomb, and upon the book’s release, he became a voice of reason for millions during the Civil Rights Movement.
Jem and Scout’s summertime pal, Dill, is based on Lee’s own childhood friend: author Truman Capote. Like the Finch siblings, Dill is representative of childhood innocence in Maycomb, a town divided by racial tensions and plagued with hatred.
The character of Tom Robinson is reportedly based on the 1931 trial of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine black teenagers in Alabama accused of raping two white women on a train. One of the alleged victims admitted to making it up, and eventually, charges were dropped against four of the teens. The others, however, were given a sentence ranging from 75 years to death. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom’s accuser stuck by her lie, leading to his fate as the story’s mockingbird.
The novel’s neighborhood legend is actually based on a “ghostly” and “enormously shy” neighbor of Lee’s, named Sonny. Lee’s friend said, “…she talked to him while he sat on the front porch. Nothing bad happened. Sonny didn’t have a murderous look in his eye, and he didn’t try to attack anybody.”