In 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird first hit book stands in the United States, leaving a deep impression during a tumultuous time of protest and defiance. Critics and activists alike lauded the book for its frank yet sensitive and somehow reassuring treatment of race and inequality in the South. Here was a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of 6-year-old Scout Finch who learned about justice and compassion from her heroic father, Atticus. Author Harper Lee, famously reclusive, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year, the book became an enduring classic of American literature, and Lee never published another novel. Until now.
This year, the literary world exploded with reports that Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman, was set to be published on July 14, news that sparked controversy and suspicion. The book serves as a sequel of sorts, but it apparently strikes a dramatically different tone. It was turned down by publishers in 1957, and Lee has never publicly expressed any desire to resurrect it in the past sixty years. Yet, here it is. In a review for the New York Times Michiko Kakutani calls the novel a “lumpy tale” and a “distressing narrative” of hate, bigotry, and isolation. Kakutani even suggests that the book may tarnish Lee’s legacy.
As an avid reader of Southern women’s literature, I will certainly read Ms. Lee’s latest, despite the criticisms. Was 89-year-old Lee manipulated by powerful publishers and book agents? Is this a sub par book and a cynical attempt to capitalize on To Kill a Mockingbird’s continuing popularity? Probably? Maybe? I hope not.
At any rate, I’d like to celebrate her 1960 masterpiece today on its 55th birthday. Here are ten beloved quotes, in no particular order, from To Kill a Mockingbird. Long live Harper Lee!
10. “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
9. “I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year.”
8. “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
7. “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
6. “The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
5. “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ’em.”
4. “Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”
3. “I asked him to pass the damn ham, please.”
2. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
1. “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.”
(A personal note about this photo: I was a 7-year-old girl living in Milledgeville, Georgia, at the time this photo was taken. I vividly remember my mother hearing about this rare appearance and wanting very badly to drive to Eufala to see Harper Lee. Violet Kane was strong supporter of creative women and used to love how close Flannery O’Connor’s peacocks were to us the short time we lived in Milledgeville. Though we did not end up going, it’s one of those moments that cemented the importance of literature in my mind. Thanks, mom.)
*A slightly different version of this article originally appeared on Aunite Bellum.