Person of the Week: Celebrating 50 Years of Harper Lee's Classic, 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Even 50 years later, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel remains a favorite.

July 9, 2010— -- For so many people across the country, both young and old, one name comes to mind when they think about the reading of their childhood -- Harper Lee.

To this day, on the eve of the 50th birthday "To Kill a Mockingbird," Lee's only novel lives on to fulfill its one purpose: to challenge society and one's way of thinking a page at a time.

"Masterpieces are masterpieces not because they are flawless but because they've tapped into something essential to us, at the heart of who we are and how we live," said author Richard Russo in a new documentary called, "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" by filmmaker Mary Murphy.

It was the Depression-era story of a spunky young girl nicknamed Scout, who along with her tough-skinned lawyer of a father, Atticus, was forced to endure biting race relations in the South.

The novel, which won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became an Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck, has never been out of print. In fact, one million copies are sold each year in 40 languages. The Library of Congress even has said that "Mockingbird" is second only to the Bible as books most often cited as making a difference.

Behind it all was a young Southern girl named Nelle Harper Lee, who once joked that she wanted to be South Alabama's Jane Austen.

Like the story's young tomboy narrator, Lee's mother died when she was young. Her father, a lawyer, reportedly was so shaken up after arguing a race case that he never practiced criminal law again. Lee, herself, attempted law school, but soon turned to writing instead.

'They've Become Close Personal Friends'

She spent four years penning "To Kill a Mockingbird, and once it was ready for publication, Lee decided upon simply using the name "Harper Lee" on the cover, afraid that she would be erroneously referred to as "Nellie."

Now it's the name that millions of readers (most of whom are students) remember, along with such characters as Jem, Calpernia and Tom Robinson. And of course, who could forget Boo Radley, the mysterious figure from across the way that still makes both books' and readers' spines tremble.

"I think there are certain books in which the characters are so real and so vivid that you feel as though they've become close personal friends," said author Anna Quindlen.

There was also Scout's precocious friend, Dill, who was based on Lee's real-life childhood neighbor, author Truman Capote. Unlike her highly visible friend, Lee never relished the fame that she said took her by surprise.

"It was like being hit over the head and knocked out cold," Lee admitted, adding that in some ways, "it was frightening."

A shy and storied recluse, Lee never has spoken publicly about her memorable novel since the 1960s, nor has she ever written another book.

"I haven't anywhere to go but down," she once told a cousin.

"Can you imagine the pressure on Harper Lee to write a sequel?" Quindlen said. "They just must have thrown rose petals and chocolates, and millions of dollars at her feet."

Though absent, she certainly received quite the warm welcome when Notre Dame's entire graduating class, with a copy of her book in hand, cheered her name as they announced she was receiving an honorary degree. Then, just a year later, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award.

Now at the age of 84, Lee still lives in Monroeville, Alabama, the town where she grew up in and the location upon which "To Kill a Mockingbird's" Maycomb was based. As described in the first chapter, "it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather, the streets turned to red slop. Grass grew on the sidewalks. The courthouse sagged in the square."

'It Never Ages'

To celebrate its half-century anniversary, members of the community gathered to read the book in that same courthouse.

"Everybody is very proud of it," said Jeanette Ageeadans, a local resident. "I feel like I wrote it."

Some believe Lee's message of acceptance still rings true.

"People think this is over. This is not over," said a resident. "It still has this galvanizing effect on a young reader. It remains as relevant today as it was the very day that it was written. It never ages."

To learn more about film and television writer/producer Mary Murphy's new book, "Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" and documentary, "Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" click HERE.