Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird: Behind the Classic Story

Right now I’m diving into the beloved American novel To Kill a Mockingbird with my high school American Lit class. While often taught in 9th grade or even to middle schoolers, I like digging into this book with 11th and 12th graders. Though the basic story and language level make it an easier read for older students, I find the story’s complex characters and themes better suited to their more mature minds.

So today, I thought it would be neat to delve into some of the novel’s historical and authorial background. I hope you enjoy coming along for the ride!

Harper Lee when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2007. White House photo by Eric Draper - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.,, Public Domain
Harper Lee’s Life

First of all, who was Harper Lee, this mysterious, somewhat reclusive author who won a Pulitzer for her first novel and then never published another till 2015, the year before she died?

1960 title page of To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Booktitle, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
She was born Nelle Harper Lee in 1926 but chose to drop the “Nelle” for her writing name. Lee grew up in the small Alabama town of Monroeville, a place not unlike the Maycomb of To Kill a Mockingbird, and while she denied basing the story on her own life, her father, like Atticus Finch, was a lawyer.
Harper Lee never married and spent much of her life living with her sister, Alice, moving between Monroeville and New York City. She loved British magazines and college football, and despite earning astoundingly high royalties from To Kill a Mockingbird throughout her life, she lived frugally, shunning computers and cell phones and doing laundry at a laundromat.

Lee was a painstaking writer, often spending six to twelve hours a day at her typewriter while composing Mockingbird and only producing one page of text. Her first version of the manuscript was rejected by her editor, though it would be released as the controversial Go Set a Watchman only a few years ago. However, the editor saw some promise in the manuscript and urged her to write the childhood story hinted there—and thus became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Real life Inspiration for Tom Robinson’s Trial

While To Kill a Mockingbird is fictional, as with many of the best stories much of what happens is inspired by real life, especially Tom Robinson’s extremely prejudiced trial. For one thing, as a child Lee witnessed her lawyer father defend a black father and son accused of murder—and lose, leading to the men’s execution. Her father never took another criminal case.

Historical Marker honoring the Scottsboro Boys, by Brian Stansberry (photographer) -
Own work, CC BY 4.0,
Perhaps even more closely related, the “Scottsboro Boys Trials” happened in Alabama in the 1930s, when Lee was still a little girl. Nine black boys were accused of raping two white girls after a group of white boys started a fight with them. Some of the accused boys were as young as twelve, and the girls’ testimony gradually became obviously unreliable, with one completely abandoning her earlier claim. However, the racially-biased jury still convicted most of the boys and sentenced seven of them to death, though through a lengthy process of appeals most were eventually either pardoned or escaped. Today Scottsboro, Alabama, holds a museum and cultural center dedicated to these boys.
Atticus and Tom Robinson in court, scene from the 1960 film.
By Moni3 - Transfered from en:Image 14 February 2008, Public Domain

Witnessing these highly biased trials under all-white juries must have provided Harper Lee with fodder for the famous courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, when, despite Atticus Finch proving Tom Robinson literally could not have committed the crime, the jury still convicts him as guilty.

Current Controversies

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that a book written in the 1960s from a child’s perspective and yet about racism and rape should raise some objections. To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned in schools at times, though at present it is still required reading in most. While I have come to love the story, I am bothered by certain aspects of it, both the common use of the “n-word” (though Atticus always disapproves) and how, in general, casual racism is endemic in the little town and even the narrator’s perspective: the black characters aren’t given much voice, and Atticus insists that his highly-prejudiced neighbors are still good people and entitled to their opinions. Controversy escalated when Go Set a Watchman was published in 2015, as this novel featuring an adult Scout showed Atticus as a set-in-his-ways white conservative who strongly opposed integration and the Civil Rights movement. (Whether Lee actually wanted this manuscript published is a whole other story and hard to discern, since she was so near the end of her life at the time.)
Old Monroe County Courthouse, inspiration for the courtroom scene in To Kill a Mockingbird.
By Redditaddict69 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

With all its flaws and foibles, however, I think To Kill a Mockingbird is still worth reading—ideally alongside other, African-American voices, both past and present, to present a fuller picture of this time in our country’s history. I love the unique perspective of a child, in all her willfulness and innocence, in viewing the harsh realities of her beloved Southern town; the beauty of language and character development in the way the story weaves together; the example of Atticus, imperfect as he is, holding staunchly to what he believes is right, regardless of cost; and even, for the time and place, the sensitivity with which Lee does portray her black characters, especially when Jem and Scout visit Calpurnia’s church and get a glimpse into her world beyond being their hired help. It’s a story that tends to tenderize my heart and make me think more deeply, and I hope that will be true for my students too as we read it together this spring and dig into this story together.

So, did you grow up loving To Kill a Mockingbird? Do you think it should still be required reading in schools? What aspects of its background do you find most interesting or surprising? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazine and won 2013 and 2018 Genesis Awards – Historical for her novels Beneath a Turquoise Sky and Fire in My Heart. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her beloved husband, Anthony, and their two kitties.


  1. Embarrassed! I don't remember if I've ever read this book...

    1. Connie, I didn't read it till I was an adult. :) It's not too late! I'd love to hear what you think of it.

  2. Kiersti! You must sometime travel to Monroeville and visit Harper's home town. The town is very much like Macomb and there's the old courthouse there on the square right next to the newer one. Inside the old one is the circular courtroom as depicted in the movie, although the movie one was a set. The town puts on a TKMB play every summer on the lawn of the old courthouse and the last act moves inside to the round courtroom. The buildings on the streets surrounding the courthouse square have murals painted on their sides depicting scenes of the story.

    My mother was born in the little town of Peterman, AL which is just outside Monroeville. My cousin and I drove down there a number of years ago and stayed with a friend I met on line. She drove us all around and we met a lot of cousins we have down there. She showed us Harper Lee's little house that she lived in when she was in Monroeville; the same house she lived in as a child. Next door was the house Truman Capote lived in while they were both children. It's often said that he was the inspiration for Dooley in the book. If you google Monroeville and/or To Kill a Mockingbird you can read a lot more about the town and how they embrace TKMB in a good way.

    1. Correction. My mom was not born in Peterman. Both my maternal grandparents were. Mom was born in Mobile AL.

    2. So interesting, Pam! That does sound like a fascinating visit--and I actually found some photos of that play online when I was researching this article. Sounds like you could do a wonderful post on this topic yourself!
      That's so cool about your mother being born in that area too. I think one reason I love To Kill a Mockingbird is because of my grandma's stories of growing up in a small town in southern Kentucky in the 1920s. The whole atmosphere of TKMB reminds me of her tales...and also, though not a lawyer, her father was a man of principle who tried to stand against the racial prejudice in their little town and even took my grandma as a little girl to the trial of a black man in their own courthouse, so she could see the bias so clearly present there. I'm thankful for that legacy of my great-grandfather!

  3. I think it should be on a list of approved books for students to choose from. I love the book and the movie. I homeschooled my kids and they read the book and watched the movie, then they critiqued both.

  4. That seems like a sensible option. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing, Debbie!