This is the 50th anniversary year for one of the most beloved and enduring American novels. The success of To Kill A Mockingbird was immediate, winning the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it remains among the top 10 best selling novels of these 50 years. It is also one of the five most assigned novels in American schools, and American librarians voted it the best novel of the 20th century.
Much of the novel is about the young tomboy Scout (author Harper Lee's self-portrait) and brother Jem growing up in a small Alabama town in the 1930s. Few writers achieve what she did: portraying childhood events while reflecting the feelings and perceptions gained over time. But the fictionalized memoir becomes a dramatic courtroom drama: Scout's father Attticus Finch (based on Lee's father) defends a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
The theme of innocence goes beyond the children to "the mockingbird" -- the innocent who only sings and does no one harm -- which applies to both the accused Tom Robinson, and to Boo Radley, the neighbor who lives in darkness, the stranger who receives his neighbors' projections of violence, and is therefore a source of fear.
Another theme, explicitly stated as a lesson to the children, is that of cultivating empathy and understanding by trying to see the world from the other's perspective, as Scout does finally when she stands on Boo Radley's porch at the end. To imaginatively live in another's skin remains a crucial necessity in our public as well as private lives. It's applicable to many situations but by the early 1960s, it was especially a resonant point of view for whites regarding civil rights struggles.
This theme is reinforced in other ways throughout the novel, notably by the story of Mrs. Dubose, an elderly neighbor whose surliness turns out to be the product of physical pain and painkiller addiction. When Jem is punished for vandalizing her garden by being required to read to her every day, it becomes a path for her redemption and peaceful death. It's another case of assumptions and projections proven wrong, as well as the power of simple acts to do more good than we know.
Harper Lee, now in her 80s and ailing, never published another book. The instant and overwhelming fame she escaped by going back to Alabama may be one reason. But she remained dedicated to the written word. In a 2006 letter to Oprah Winfrey, she wrote: "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books."