To Kill a Mockingbird | Study Guide

Harper Lee

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Things You Didn't Know

Every book has a story—check out these 10 unusual facts about To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

To Kill a Mockingbird | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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It sold more than 30 million copies worldwide since its release in 1960 and continues to sell about a million copies every year. Author Harper Lee, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, once described her novel's meteoric success as "like being hit over the head and knocked cold." Despite its popularity, Lee published only one other novel, Go Set a Watchman (Mockingbird's sequel), in 2015.

Today, To Kill a Mockingbird remains a fixture both in American literature and in the hearts of countless readers with its poignant views on racial injustice as told through the eyes of its young narrator, Scout Finch. Its divisive subject matter has led to its banning in schools across the country, even in the last decade. Indeed, a book so controversial has a storied past, with several of the events and characters inspired by real-life happenings.

1. Harper Lee didn't want the book turned into an electronic version.

Lee wasn't a fan of the digital age, saying she loved "dusty old books and libraries." She refused to sign the rights away for a downloadable version of the book—that is until her 88th birthday on April 24, 2014.

"I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long," she said in a statement through her publisher. "This is Mockingbird for a new generation."

Harper Lee receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 5, 2007.

Harper Lee receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 5, 2007. Eric Draper

2. Lee was able to write the book thanks to a gift from her friends.

To Kill a Mockingbird may have never been written had it not been for the generosity of her friends. When she moved to New York City to pursue her writing career, Lee struggled to make ends meet.

While there, she befriended Joy and Michael Brown, the latter being a well-to-do composer. On Christmas 1956, they gifted her with a year's worth of wages along with a note that read: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas."
Michael Brown, 2012.

Michael Brown, 2012. Wusca CC BY-SA 3.0

3. Atticus Finch was modeled after Harper Lee's father.

Much of Lee's childhood is mirrored in To Kill a Mockingbird. Just like Atticus Finch, Lee's father was also a lawyer, named Amasa Coleman Lee; he defended two African American men charged with murder in 1919. But unlike the stoic Atticus, Amasa left criminal law altogether after losing his case.

4. The character of Dill was based on Harper Lee's childhood friend, author Truman Capote.

Jem and Scout's precocious friend Dill was inspired by Lee's real-life friendship with author Truman Capote, who lived next door. In describing their friendship, a family friend of Lee's once said, "Nelle was too rough for the girls, and Truman was scared of the boys, so he just tagged on to her and she was his protector."

Truman Capote photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1948.

Truman Capote, 1948. Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress

5. Truman Capote was jealous of Lee's success with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee and Capote were close friends into adulthood, with Lee even serving as his research assistant before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Unfortunately, her novel's overnight success caused friction between the two, particularly when she won the Pulitzer and he didn't. The two grew distant after that.

6. There was a real-life Boo Radley.

Several residents of Monroeville, Alabama, including Truman Capote, say the "real" Boo Radley lived down the street from Lee's family. His name was Alfred "Son" Boulware, and just like Boo, he was a pale, reclusive man who left presents for children in the knothole of his tree.

7. The child actors who played Jem and Scout in the film couldn't stand each other

Mary Badham, the actress who played Scout in the 1962 film, has stated in interviews that she and Phillip Alford, who played Jem, "despised each other." This was due in part to Badham's habit of mimicking Philip's lines while shooting. When it came time to film the scene of Jem and Dill pushing Scout in the tire, Alford joked, "We tried to kill her, but we were too small and couldn't get the tire going fast enough."

1962 film poster.

1962 film poster for To Kill a Mockingbird. Universal Pictures

8. The Tom Robinson case is reportedly based on a similar real-life case.

There's a theory that the Tom Robinson case was based on a 1931 case against a group of nine black teenagers in Alabama called the "Scottsboro Boys." They were accused of raping two white girls, though one of the alleged victims later admitted to making up the story. Charges were eventually dropped against four of the teenagers, but the others were given a sentence that ranged from 75 years to death.

9. Lee never watched her hometown's stage production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Monroe County Commission puts on an annual stage production of Mockingbird in the very courthouse that inspired the film's set. It attracts thousands of people every year, though one person was notably absent: Harper Lee never saw the production, in part because she was upset that the city never asked for permission to use her book's characters.

A scene from the play performed in Monroeville, Alabama.

A scene from the play performed in Monroeville, Alabama. Library of Congress

10. Lee did not own a washing machine.

While To Kill a Mockingbird made Lee wealthy over the years—she earned more than $800,000 in royalties in the first half of 2010 alone—she lived a modest lifestyle. A neighbor who lived next to the Lee sisters between 2004–06 said:

She did her laundry at the Laundromat one town over because they didn't own a washing machine. She liked to slip behind the wheel of her Buick and explore the red dirt roads of the rural county she vividly brought to life in 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

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