Today is Southern novelist Harper Lee’s 86th birthday. Born in Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926, Miss Lee is a bit of an anomaly. She published one novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Honor. It remains arguably one of the most influential works of modern Southern literature. Published by J. B. Lippincott in 1961, the novel became an immediate sensation and success. It was followed in 1962 by a film adaptation starring Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch) and introducing Robert Duvall (“Boo” Radley). Together, the novel and the film remain part of the larger American cultural landscape.
I remember reading Mockingbird at about the age of 10. Like Scout Finch, the tomboy through whom the story is told, I could not remember learning to read any more than I could remember learning to breathe. In terms of the words, the book was an easy read for me. But as a child in Pennsylvania far removed from the time, place, and culture within which the novel was set, I was oblivious to much of its meaning and certainly of its significance. Like many, I suppose, I returned to Mockingbird many times in my life. Layers of my own experiences lent new meaning to Miss Lee’s work. It was truly a new novel each time I picked it up and sank into its pages to join Jem, Scout, and Dill on a journey toward grappling with the harsh realities of racism, injustice, and poverty – a journey toward growing up.
Southern literature has flourished in the half-century (and more) since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. The landscape of Southern writing offers incredibly diverse and interesting work. Perhaps it comes from a regional fondness for the story told well, with embellishments and exaggerations, at pig pickin’s, at family gatherings, at almost every opportunity. I don’t know about all that (as Southerners here say when they think this is probably wrong but are a little too polite to say so).
One thing is clear: Southern literature is a genre worth exploring, and Southern-born authors are often well worth reading. Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Lee Smith, Kaye Gibbons, Reynolds Price…the names go on and on.
But Harper Lee will always be at the top of my list.
For books and periodicals on Southern literature or by Southern authors, visit our Southern Literature list.
With all good wishes,
Cat’s Cradle Books