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To Kill a Mockingbird: most beloved novel of the 20th century

Mockingbird takes flight for a new generation

Date: July 04 2014

Neil McMahon

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin.”

Moments memorable and profound abound in To Kill A Mockingbird, but this one lingers for many: the young narrator Scout urged to stand for her defeated but heroic father in a courtroom of the American south, where a black man has been sentenced to death for rape. In the half century since the world first met Atticus Finch, readers have been paying similar homage to a man who stands among the most admired figures in literature.

And this week, Atticus and a book that is arguably the most beloved novel of the 20th century take a surprising fresh bow in the 21st. Harper Lee, long fiercely protective of the only book she ever published, has agreed that her work can be released in electronic form. It is a momentous publishing event, filling one of the notable gaps on the digital bookshelf. As Lee said on her 88th birthday in April: “This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”

In bringing Atticus – a character inspired by her father -  into the iPad age, the reclusive Lee overcomes an earlier aversion to e-books, and decades of resisting any tinkering with her work. But for millions of Mockingbird devotees - many having held it close for life after first encountering it in a classroom – the fresh focus on Lee’s classic reminds them again of its lessons and its influence.

“It’s a book that seems to be universally adored and a book that continues to talk to us,” says Kevin Rabalais, an author born and raised in Louisiana who now lives in Melbourne.

“It does all the things a classic should do. It’s that ultimate achievement of the art of fiction. This is a book that entertains first and foremost, but it addresses central issues not only of the American south, but of humanity, and it still manages to be funny almost on every page.”

Rabalais’ father was a small-town southern lawyer, like Atticus Finch – “I’ve thought of him as Atticus Finch” – a common refrain for lawyers and their kin, for whom Mockingbird is a common reference point. The dean of Melbourne University Law School, Carolyn Evans, cites it as a profound influence.

“In terms of the law, there are not many works that compare,” Professor Evans says.

“Perhaps inevitably for a lawyer-to-be, the [scenes] that had a profound impact were the courtroom scenes … it was my first real introduction to the way in which entrenched social biases like racism could affect the legal system.”

For others, the inspiration has been more personal, and they have found their ways of paying tribute. Lara Kerr cradles her three-week-old son and treasures the symbolism of his name: Atticus.

“It came from reading the book and seeing the movie in high school. I always thought it was a very strong name and it reflected a strong, noble character. My partner agreed and we decided we’d definitely name him Atticus,” she says.

It’s a name popping up with increasing regularity, according to websites that monitor baby names. Also popular is Scout, for both pets and children – the name for a dog who became subject of a best-selling book by former New York Times editor Jill Abramson, the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore; and Harper – since Victoria Beckham named her daughter for the author of her favourite book in 2012.

In Melbourne, there is an Atticus Finch bar in Brunswick – named, says owner Marty McQuilten, for the immediate association people have with its namesake. “The name has a nobility – it brings a bit of class – though we’ve then tried to ruffle its hair a bit.” The bar offers an additional tribute: a cocktail named Tequila Mockingbird.

Such tributes have become common in popular culture. Tequila Mockingbird was the name of both an episode of the 1960s sit-com Get Smart and a band in The Simpsons: Captain Bart and the Tequila Mockingbirds. The book is the favourite of none other than Clark Kent, according to official Superman lore.

But for all its pop culture presence, Mockingbird’s influence remains more profound than ephemeral.

For Michael Edmonds, a Sydney physio who dabbles in writing, it was the inspiration for his first novel, The Righteous Man, which he plans to self-publish as an e-book. It is set in the American south, with issues of social justice its theme.

“I’ve always seen To Kill A Mockingbird as the matriarch of those kinds of stories,” he says. “My title hints towards that Atticus-type character – someone who’s faced with a decision where he could walk away or do the right thing, and decides to take the harder road.”

For Annamaree Reyes, the legacy of Mockingbird  is a reminder of very real moments of injustice and persecution. Now executive producer at Radio Atticus – part of the Sydney-based community radio station 2SER – Ms Reyes was raised in the Philippines under military rule. She discovered the book as a teenager.

“We weren’t allowed to read the book – so the only way I could do it was hide, at about 1am when everyone was asleep, under the piano … with a candle. I read it back-to-back three times. It made me really angry and it made me think about what was right and wrong. That was why I didn’t hesitate then to start talking secretly about what was happening in my country.”

It’s this kind of universality that makes Mockingbird such a rare achievement, says Rabalais.

“In my experience – as somebody from a town of 5000 people in the Deep South – Harper Lee gets that aspect so right. [Then] to make something so universal and for it to  become a book that affects people worldwide – that speaks to the achievement of what she did with that single book.”


Since her only novel was published in 1960 Harper Lee has refused even to write a foreword for later editions of To Kill A Mockingbird. Her only concession was agreeing to a film, made in 1962 and starring Gregory Peck, the man she regarded as the embodiment of Atticus Finch.

The book has sold more than 30 million copies, a number that will soar when it is released worldwide as an e-book across all platforms – Kindle, Apple, KoGo and Google – on July 8. The move represents a change of heart for Lee, who in 2006 wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey about her love of books.

In an “abundant society”, she wrote, “where people have laptops, mobile phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.

“And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up — some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.”

Canberra Times


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