Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters: What Harper Lee's Book and the Iconic American Film Mean to Us Today

Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters: What Harper Lee's Book and the Iconic American Film Mean to Us Today

by Tom Santopietro


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With forty million copies sold, To Kill a Mockingbird's poignant but clear-eyed examination of human nature has cemented its status as a global classic. Tom Santopietro’s book Why To Kill a Mockingbird Matters takes a 360-degree look at the Mockingbird phenomenon, both on page and screen.

Santopietro traces the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird and the impact of the Pulitzer Prize, and he investigates both the claims that Lee’s book is actually racist and the worldwide controversy surrounding the 2015 publication of Go Set a Watchman. Here too, for the first time, is the full behind-the-scenes story regarding the creation of the 1962 film, one that has entered the American consciousness in a way that few other films ever have. From the earliest casting sessions to the 'scars and the Fiftieth Anniversary screening at the White House, Santopietro examines exactly what makes the movie and Gregory Peck's unforgettable performance as Atticus Finch so captivating.

As Americans yearn for an end to divisiveness, there is no better time to look at the significance of Harper Lee's book, the film, and all that came after.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781493052523
Publisher: Applause
Publication date: 11/15/2019
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,133,389
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Tom Santopietro is the author of The Sound of Music Story, Barbara Cook: Then and Now, The Godfather Effect, The Importance of Being Barbra, Considering Doris Day (a New York Times Editor’s Choice), and Sinatra in Hollywood. A frequent media commentator and interviewer, he lectures on classic films, and over the past thirty years has managed more than two dozen Broadway shows.

Read an Excerpt



My book had a universal theme. It's not a "racial" novel. It portrays an aspect of civilization, not necessarily southern civilization. ... It's a novel of man's conscience ... universal in the sense it could happen to anybody, anywhere people live together.

— Harper Lee, the Birmingham Post-Herald, 1962

Monroeville, Alabama. Situated in the southwest corner of the state, due north of Pensacola and two hundred miles south of Birmingham, with Montgomery lying to the northeast and Mobile to the southwest. Isolated, with the nearest passenger train depot thirty minutes away in Greenville. Population thirteen hundred. The town into which Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926.

Oak and pine trees surround a town square anchored by a two-story redbrick courthouse topped by a silver cupola housing a clock on each of its four sides. Several warehouses for the cotton and lumber industries which form the basis of the local economy dot the landscape, making the area, in Mockingbird's fictionalized description as Maycomb, "a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberlands." There is exactly one department store — Katz's, a purveyor of dry goods. The town's red clay streets will remain unpaved until 1935, and horses circle the town square as often as do automobiles. A small, drowsy southern burg that hadn't been wired for electricity until 1923, Monroeville remains without a public library, a town where the scoutmaster serves as the undertaker and "[p]eople moved slowly ... A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer."

Seventy-year-old post–Civil War political compromises had resulted in a United States where towns like Monroeville, located below the Mason-Dixon Line, remained rigorously segregated, the laws of the South enforced in such a way as to protect white Americans at the expense of all others. The Ku Klux Klan, emboldened by their heroic portrayal in the well-made but staggeringly racist Birth of a Nation (1915) had, thanks to that remarkably effective recruiting tool, visibly grown in popularity during the decade after the film's release. With the myth of African-American intellectual and moral inferiority remaining codified in the very laws of the land, the end result was a town that lingered in the past, a slow-moving world where the black community provided the backbreaking labor underpinning the lumber and cotton industries, while remaining poorly paid and bereft of social privileges. A world where the threat of lynchings lay directly beneath a veneer of social respectability. The Billie Holiday classic "Strange Fruit" spoke of a reality with no redress in sight:

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze ...

If Italian-Americans, also the victims of lynching in the South, could and did turn to the Mafia for a form of protection, the African-American community did not yet possess any powerful alternative to the flawed, racially biased court system; the NAACP, only seventeen years old at the time of Nelle's birth, was slowly making inroads, but it did not yet possess the power capable of mounting sustained legal actions on a widespread basis.

With the NAACP still finding its footing, membership in the Klan swelling into the millions, and Prohibition the law of the land, America suddenly seemed awash in people dictating a national moral code.

Which is exactly what made Nelle Harper Lee's refusal to play by anyone else's rules all the more interesting. She proved a tomboy from the time she learned to walk, or more accurately, run, and in the traditionally house-proud matriarchal society of the time, it was actually her father, Amasa Coleman (A. C.) Lee, with whom she most closely bonded, in substantial part because of the periodic emotional upsets suffered by her mother. Frances Finch Lee, known as "Miss Fanny," was a gentle, somewhat overweight soul, described by her eldest daughter, Alice, in later years as having suffered from a "nervous disorder." Exhibiting streaks of obsessive behavior, she played the piano constantly, oftentimes in the middle of the night, and worked crossword puzzles incessantly.

Although never discussed publicly, it appeared that she had suffered a breakdown after her newborn second daughter, Louise, cried unceasingly for weeks on end. In the small, closed-off world of early-twentieth-century Monroeville, consulting an out-of-town medical specialist rated as a form of unusual behavior, but A.C.'s education allowed him to think and move beyond the town's circumscribed patterns of behavior, and together he and Fanny traveled to Selma to consult with a pediatric specialist. It was this specialist, Dr. Harper, who finally diagnosed Louise's problem and put her on a special formula, which very quickly stopped the crying jags. To express their gratitude, when Frances and A.C. subsequently had their fourth and final child, their daughter was christened Nelle Harper Lee.

Born a full fifteen years after her sister Alice, ten years after Louise, and a little more than five years after her brother, Edwin, Nelle, as family and friends alike called her, grew up a true child of the Depression, only six years old when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office as president. With her father busy practicing law and her mother suffering periodic episodes of emotional distress, Nelle was often left to her own devices. Giving rein to her tomboy instincts, she had the full run of both the natural world and the adjacent school playground, exploring the world while, however unconsciously, assessing her own place therein. It all proved to be a loving yet slightly uneasy childhood, and if Truman Capote's years-later tale that Miss Fanny tried to drown Nelle in the bathtub proved to be yet another of his attention-seeking, mean-spirited fabrications, it seemed true nonetheless that Fanny was, at the very least, high-strung — in Capote's words, "the most uptight person I've ever met, pulled taut just like a violin string." Whatever the pain Fanny's difficulties caused Nelle, she never spoke about it, instead resolving the problem in the semiautobiographical To Kill a Mockingbird by simply removing Scout's mother from the scene: Atticus became a widower and Scout and Jem motherless children, the maternal role in the Finch family filled by Calpurnia, the African-American housekeeper.

If Nelle's childhood proved unusual in some respects, it was, nonetheless, rooted in a bone-deep attachment to a familiar place, Monroeville, and filled with the seemingly extraordinary (to them) events all children encounter while cautiously expanding their boundaries and exploring the world at large. In the end, none of those experiences proved to be quite as unusual or life-altering for Nelle as the arrival of Truman Streckfus Persons (the name Capote came in 1933, when he was adopted by his mother's second husband, Joseph Capote). Only four when his parents divorced, with a father never on the scene and a mother busy pursuing the high life in New York, Truman was sent to live with the Faulks of Monroeville, the very same relatives who had raised his mother. In the Monroeville of the early 1930s, the strange, effeminate, brilliant Truman landed next door to the Lees like a visitor from outer space.

The Faulks themselves were eccentric, three maiden ladies and a bachelor brother, and Truman gravitated toward the seemingly much more secure family life of the Lees, where he found, in Nelle, a kindred spirit. They were, in the words of Lee biographer Charles J. Shields, bound together by "a common anguish." In appearance and behavior alike, each seemed half boy and half girl; just as Truman eschewed any pursuit of the traditional rough-and-tumble boyhood world of sports and fighting,

Nelle forged a path as far away as possible from what Mockingbird's Scout refers to as the "starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary" found in traditional girlhood. (Said Anna Quindlen in later years, "I think one of the reasons I became so obsessed with Harper Lee ... is because everything she did convinced me she was a grown-up Scout who hadn't gone over to the dark side of being a girlie girl.") Nelle proved unequivocally tougher and faster with her fists than Truman, always glad to make short work of anyone who dared treat him poorly. (When novelist John Knowles met the adult Harper Lee, he opined, "A very nice charming down to earth, masculine sort of woman.") She did not fit into conventional society, and neither did Truman, but more to the point, neither seemed to care much about it, accepting the fact that in the South of the 1930s, different did not mean special — it meant oddball. If both Nelle and Truman were made to feel separate — alone, even — then they would be alone together.

With his strange mannerisms stopping bullies dead in their tracks, Truman made his way in an often alien world by means of gumption and intellect, qualities shared by the equally singular Nelle. Firing popguns, fishing, and daring each other into the yard of the seemingly haunted Boulware house, the duo bonded in their companionable exploration of the town; even at a very young age, they shared a burgeoning love of words and books, and Truman kept the prized pocket dictionary given to him by Nelle's father in his back pocket at all times.

A. C. Lee may have been an attorney, but he was scarcely well-to-do, and with little money to spare, the two youngsters made their own entertainment, devising wild scenarios inspired by books, movies, and, most crucially of all for aspiring writers, their own imaginations. In 1964, in her last in-depth interview, Nelle bluntly and humorously stated, "That kind of [southern] life produces more writers than living on 82nd Street in New York City." In this she seems to share a striking similarity with Bruce Springsteen's musing that all art comes out of a "rambunctious gang feeling" born out of the neighborhood. Telling stories would not be good enough — no, it all had to be written down — the junior novelists thrilled when they acquired a solid black secondhand Underwood No. 5 manual typewriter, courtesy of A. C. Lee.

Truman, always the more fanciful of the duo, would dictate a story for Nelle to type, but on the next day, the roles of storyteller and typist would be reversed. True southerners, they were, at a very young age, mutually steeped in the southern storytelling tradition, creating stories as a way of exercising control as they tried to navigate the confusing world of adults. Said Nelle in later years, "We lived in our imagination most of the time." They remained outsiders, standing apart, observing southern society with an ironic, occasionally jaundiced eye while searching for the telling social clue. Why, they asked themselves, did different equal bad? Why were blacks treated as second-class citizens? Such powers of observation became instinctive, the two youngsters already the living, breathing embodiments of screenwriter Phoebe Ephron's dictum: "Everything is copy." All of the information they gathered was stored away for future use, eventually bursting forth in their own published work: Idabel Thompkins in Truman's 1948 novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was Harper Lee transferred to the page, as was Ann Finchburg ("Jumbo") in his beloved story "The Thanksgiving Visitor." Biding her time, Nelle stored away her own telling observations, all of which informed the endearingly oddball character of Dill in Mockingbird.

Truman moved to New York when his mother remarried Joseph Capote, but the friendship with Nelle endured, and for a time he returned in the summer for visits, always filled with fascinating, improbable tales of life in glamorous New York City. The visits dwindled, but the friendship remained intact as Nelle navigated her way through grammar and high school. A high-achieving student who eschewed the traditional societal norms — why bother with skirts and dresses when pants were so much more comfortable — and possessed of an original personality, Nelle graduated from high school in 1944, and then matriculated at the all-female Methodist Huntingdon College in Montgomery. Sharp-minded and possessed of a dry wit, not to mention a keen sense of the absurd, Nelle made no effort to fit into the frilly sorority mind-set of her peers, and instead wrote for both the school newspaper and the campus literary magazine. She proved tough but warm, a gimlet-eyed observer constantly moving away from the hidebound traditions of the past, and it was while at college that her first two stories appeared in print: "Nightmare," a tale of lynching, and "A Wink at Justice," the short story of a judge dealing with a group of black men accused of illegal gambling.

At the same time she was, in many ways, a typical member of her generation, the first for whom radios, records, and movies proved a given. Born at a time when there were tens of thousands of former slaves still alive, Nelle was now part of a generation for whom the world came into one's own home every day, the radios and newspapers bringing with them the different viewpoints heretofore invisible in the rural South. The Great Depression and World War II landed in homes with an immediacy previously unheard of, and as a result, Nelle, like so many of her generation, held a worldview forever shaped by those cataclysmic events.

If war always remains the single biggest disrupter of traditional mores and customs, then in its reaction to World War II, Nelle's generation proved no exception. For men fighting on foreign soil cheek by jowl with soldiers of every conceivable ethnicity, parochialism inevitably began to crumble; Hollywood's World War II combat films, which featured a veritable melting pot of ethnicities, presented this viewpoint to the nearly forty million weekly moviegoers on the home front. For women who now began working in jobs heretofore reserved for men, the sense of freedom, both economic and social, upended the traditional societal roles in which Nelle already held no interest. Ladies auxiliaries? Power in the form of gossip? Nonstarters. The difference with Nelle, however, lay in the fact that she never would attempt to fit the accepted mold, unlike her contemporaries, who did so, however grudgingly.

That refusal to play by the rules went hand in hand with an increasingly liberal worldview, but Nelle's biggest act of rebellion lay a few short years away. She first attempted to make her father happy by following in her older sister Alice's footsteps; transferring to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in order to study law, she dutifully plodded along, but found much greater pleasure in writing the "Caustic Comments" column for the Crimson White campus newspaper. She derived even more satisfaction from humorous articles written for the Rammer Jammer magazine, and in 1946 she was chosen the magazine's editor in chief. By now she was an established, original presence on campus — a young woman who swore, didn't bother with makeup, and cared little about approval from those in charge. Her succinct and rather prescient profile in the Crimson White read: "Lawyer Lee will spend her future in Monroeville. As for literary aspirations she says 'I shall probably write a book some day. They all do.'"

One biographer said that "she hated studying law — and that was the term she used, hated." Instead, she found true pleasure and genuine freedom when she spent the summer of 1948 enrolled in Oxford University's international graduates summer school. It was Oxford that gave Nelle a taste of the world at large, exposing her to vistas unimaginable in Monroeville, and she returned home with a newfound determination to become a writer. Realizing that further pursuit of the law was pointless, she dropped out of college in 1948, one semester shy of graduation.

Part of her still needed Monroeville and always would; she loved the sense of community and the feeling of roots, but small-town life had begun to feel closed off and ultimately stifling. If it was comforting to know that neighbors would always keep a sharp eye out for your welfare, it was also disconcerting to realize that they knew all of your business. Looking around Monroeville, sanctuary and prison all in one, she literally saw more of the same no matter where she gazed: no mountains, no oceans, just an endless flat vista.

Return home from Oxford she did, but only to waitress for a year in order to save money for her ultimate goal: life in New York City. Eleven hundred miles away and the center of the publishing industry. Impersonal and bustling, where you saw "the other" every day, interacting on the subway, in the stores, and on the sidewalk, until those initially strange-seeming men and women ceased to be anything but fellow New Yorkers.

Nelle, of course, already knew that there was a chasm as wide as the nearby Gulf of Mexico between the promise of America and what it actually delivered. Like millions before her, she needed to escape and explore, all the while asking herself the eternal questions "Who am I?" and "Where do I fit in?" She'd never find the answers, never figure out her worldview, by staying in Monroeville, and if it took an act of will to leave her hometown and pursue a life of writing up north, so be it. She would move to the epicenter of American self-reinvention: Manhattan.


Excerpted from "Why to Kill a Mockingbird Matters"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Tom Santopietro.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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