Lee’s Calls for Social Justice Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a moving plea for social justice, was a popular and critical success, winning a Pulitzer Prize for the author and an Academy Award for the star of the film version of the book. The book remains in print and is considered one of the best American novels of the twentieth century.

Summary of Event

Harper Lee’s novel of social injustice, To Kill a Mockingbird, exposed the racism and prejudices of a fictional small southern town much like the one in which Lee grew up. Lee, however, did not intend the book to be a complete rejection of her southern heritage. Her mother, Frances Finch Lee, came from a distinguished Virginia family that founded the town of Finchburg, Alabama. Harper paid tribute to that side of her family by calling her fictional hero “Atticus Finch.” To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee) Literary movements;Southern fiction [kw]Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social Justice (July 11, 1960)[Lees To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social Justice] [kw]To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social Justice, Lee’s (July 11, 1960) [kw]Justice, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social (July 11, 1960) To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee) Literary movements;Southern fiction [g]North America;July 11, 1960: Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social Justice[06600] [g]United States;July 11, 1960: Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social Justice[06600] [c]Literature;July 11, 1960: Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social Justice[06600] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 11, 1960: Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social Justice[06600] [c]Human rights;July 11, 1960: Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social Justice[06600] [c]Social issues and reform;July 11, 1960: Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social Justice[06600] [c]Women’s issues;July 11, 1960: Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Calls for Social Justice[06600] Lee, Harper Capote, Truman Peck, Gregory

Atticus was modeled on Harper’s father Amasa Coleman (A. C.) Lee, a principled individual like his ancestor Robert E. Lee, the revered Confederate general. A. C. was a community leader, a lawyer, a member of the state legislature, and part owner and editor of the local newspaper. Lee’s independence of mind is reflected not only in her father’s willingness to take unpopular cases but also in the fact that, at a time when women were not expected to enter the professions, he sent two daughters to law school. One of them, Alice, eventually became her father’s partner. However, Harper chose her own way to influence others; in 1950, six months before she would have received her law degree, she left the University of Alabama and went to New York City to become a writer.

Harper Lee.

Lee had been writing since she was seven, and later some of her work appeared in campus publications. In New York City, however, she was just another would-be author, supporting herself by working as an airline reservations clerk. After completing two essays and three short stories, Lee took the manuscripts to a literary agent, who suggested that she develop one of the stories into a novel. At that point, a group of friends offered Lee enough money so that she could quit her job and spend all her time writing. Even after her father’s illness made it necessary for her to divide her time between New York and Monroeville, Lee kept working on the novel, and, in 1957, she submitted the manuscript to an editor at J. B. Lippincott J. B. Lippincott , only to be told to revise her work to make it more unified. To Kill a Mockingbird was finally published on July 11, 1960. Harper was soon to become part of a group of southern writers who were becoming increasingly important in the literary world.

To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the middle 1930’s, long before the Civil Rights movement. It recaptures the Monroeville of the author’s own childhood, when she was a tomboy like the character of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Lee had spent much of her time growing up with a boy named Truman Streckfus Persons (Truman Capote), who would become Charles Baker “Dill” Harris in the novel.

Scout, the novel’s narrator, is a young person who, along with her brother Jem and her friend Dill, learn from Scout’s father that no matter what others say, every human being has value. In addition to being a book about racial injustice, in which an innocent African American man, Tom Robinson, is accused of and found guilty of raping a white girl, the novel also tells the story of Arthur “Boo” Radley, branded a monster by the community. Boo is befriended by the children and proves his worth by saving Jem’s life. Jem learns just how deceptive appearances can be when, forced by his father to read to an ill-tempered old lady, he discovers that she is bravely battling addiction to morphine.

Scout emulates her father’s courage by facing down a lynch mob. Throughout the novel, she also emulates his independence of mind by refusing to adopt the mannerisms of a southern lady, thus defying the gender role her aunt is determined to force on her. Eventually, Scout learns to differentiate between consideration for others—of the kind her father practices—and mindless affectation. After the book appeared, A. C. Lee voiced pride in his daughter’s work. He saw in the novel his own life story, that of a southern liberal who for years had spoken out for social justice, like many southern liberals of the time. Though A. C. had never defended an African American man in a rape case, he rightly saw himself in the character of Atticus Finch.

Initially, To Kill a Mockingbird’s critical reception was mixed. Though some found the novel deeply moving, others objected to what they called sermonizing and a melodramatic ending. Nevertheless, in 1961, the book won the Pulitzer Prize Pulitzer Prizes;literature for fiction, and it sold 2.5 million copies in its first year. It became a Literary Guild selection, a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate, and a Reader’s Digest condensed book. The film To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan) Motion-picture adaptations[Motion picture adaptations];To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) won an Academy Award for Horton Foote’s adapted screenplay and a Best Actor Oscar for Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch. Peck had his own production company make the film, because the major studios rejected it as too controversial.

Significance

Although at one time Harper Lee said that she was working on another novel with a southern setting, it evidently was not completed. Lee continued to divide her time between New York City and Monroeville. She lived quietly, rarely making public appearances or giving interviews. In 1983, she presented a paper, “Romance and High Adventure,” for the Alabama History and Heritage Festival. The paper appeared two years later in a collected work edited by Jerry E. Brown called Clearings in the Thicket: An Alabama Humanities Reader. Lee’s reputation, though, rests on her one and only novel.

By the 1970’s, unfavorable criticism of To Kill a Mockingbird had virtually vanished. The novel was no longer considered too preachy or too melodramatic. In fact, during the Civil Rights era, the novel was studied as a classic example of race prejudice in the South. By the 1990’s, however, scholars revisiting the book began to see it in a broader perspective. Although the novel was clearly a work against racism, gender was a major theme as well.

Critical reinterpretations of Lee’s novel, along with its enduring appeal to general readers, have made To Kill A Mockingbird a classic work in American literature. It remains in print, has been translated into many foreign languages, and is a standard text in American high schools and colleges. With its plea for tolerance and understanding, To Kill a Mockingbird has undoubtedly left its mark on a changing culture. Indeed, in 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch, as portrayed by Peck, the greatest hero in the history of American cinema. To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee) Literary movements;Southern fiction

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abernathy, Jeff. To Hell and Back: Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003. Focuses on the position of liberal southerners during the Civil Rights movement. Includes a chapter on “racial uncertainty” in the works of Harper Lee and Carson McCullers. Notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Going, William T. Essays on Alabama Literature. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1975. The chapter “Store and Mockingbird: Two Pulitzer Novels about Alabama,” remains an essential study of To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Claudia Durst.“To Kill a Mockingbird”: Threatening Boundaries. New York: Twayne, 1994. A major book-length critical study. Pays special attention to connections between the 1930’s setting and events taking place at the time the novel was written. Chronology, notes, selected bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Understanding “To Kill a Mockingbird”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. An illustrated collection of relevant historical documents, interviews, and discussions of related issues, ranging from legal issues to censorship. Bibliographies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Carolyn M. “Harper Lee.” In The History of Southern Women’s Literature, edited by Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. A lively, insightful discussion of Lee both as a person and as a writer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shackelford, Dean. “The Female Voice in To Kill a Mockingbird: Narrative Strategies in Film and Novel.” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures 50 (1996-1997): 101-113. Points out the importance of gender and gender roles in the novel and in the film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. New York: Henry Holt, 2006. The first biography of Lee, based on four years of research and hundreds of interviews. Details the process of creating To Kill a Mockingbird.

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