It’s 50 years old this weekend--or 50 years young, depending on your worldview. Either way, the numbers enjoyed by the classic American novel of racism injustice and ultimate redemption, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, are headspinning.
Since its publication in 1960, the book has never been out of print. It’s sold well in excess of 40 million copies over the years, averaging about a million copies a year currently. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and the following year was made into an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck, still listed as the #1 courtroom drama by the American Film Institute.
The book has been translated into more than 40 languages, was named a best book of the 20th century by librarians, and remains a staple of thousands of high-school and middle-school reading lists to this day. It’s the only book written by Harper Lee, who in 2007 was awarded a presidential medal of freedom by President George W. Bush for her contributions to literature.
“A novel has never kidnapped me before,” bestselling author Wally Lamb has said about Mockingbird, recalling how he fell under its power as a high school student. In three days, he says, “I finished Harper Lee’s tale of innocence lost, conscience tested, and hyprocrisy skewered. Until Mockingbird, I had no idea that literature could exert so strong a power.”
The book has also just been reissued in a special 50th anniversary edition by HarperCollins, which has created a website to inform the public about special events celebrating the book. From coast to coast, in libraries, bookstores, town halls and theaters, fans across the nation are honoring the book with readings, parties, discussions, art contests, buttons, banners, even courtroom reenactments. Events will continue throughout the year.
But as her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, rolls out the red carpet this weekend, it’s a longshot that 84-year-old Harper Lee will make any special appearances for the occasion. That is not and has never been her style. Despite all the hoopla, despite all the requests for her time, attention and comment, it’s more likely Ms. Lee will live her life as she’s always done, quietly, peacefully, and away from the madding crowds.
According to a longstanding friend, "Contrary to the oft-repeated twaddle, Nelle [Lee's given first name] is not a recluse. She simply prefers to live her life privately and to let her novel speak for itself. Given today's celebrity-obsessed media, I find her preferences refreshing."
Numbers alone, of course, can never tell the complete story of a book’s success. Says Rick Bragg, who himself won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing and today teaches writing at the University of Alabama, where Ms. Lee attended college, “Most of us who found something fine and lasting in Mockingbird did so when we were very young. Maybe, if we had read it when we were old and cynical and bitter, its simple sermon would have bounced off our scaly hides. But I did read it when I was young, and it explained some things to me, and I am grateful for it. I shake my head a little when I see people pick at it now, intellectually, half a century later, and say it was too simplistic. But maybe, in 1960, it had to be. Hate was sometimes sadly uncomplicated. It still is.”