On this day in 1960, the 34-year-old novelist Nelle Harper Lee publishes her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Set in Maycomb, a small Alabama town much like Lee’s native Monroeville, To Kill a Mockingbird is populated with indelible characters, including the book's tomboy narrator, Jean Louise Finch (known as “Scout”), the mysterious recluse Boo Radley and Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, an upstanding lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. Now a staple of junior high and high school classrooms and the subject of numerous censorship efforts, it offers a vivid depiction of life in the Jim Crow South during the Great Depression.
By the mid-1950s, Lee had followed her dreams of a writing career to New York City, where her childhood friend Truman Capote had already won fame in literary circles. For Christmas in 1956, her good friends Michael and Joy Brown gave her a check equal to a year’s salary, so she could quit her job and devote more time to her writing.
Soon, Lee had produced a novel manuscript, titled Go Set a Watchman, which she was able to sell to the publisher J.B. Lippincott and Company for $1,000 after her editor, Tay Hohoff, suggested she revise the story and expand on flashback sequences set during the narrator’s childhood. Lee spent two years rewriting her book, calling the revised manuscript To Kill a Mockingbird. (She dropped her first name for publication, in order to avoid people mispronouncing it “Nellie.”)
Lee’s book became an immediate success, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and eventually selling more than 40 million copies worldwide. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus in the 1962 film version, which also nabbed statuettes for screenwriting and art direction.
But the famously private Lee didn’t come out with a follow-up; in fact, she wouldn’t publish another book for 55 years. Then in 2015, HarperCollins published the recently rediscovered Go Set a Watchman. The book is set 20 years after the time period depicted in Mockingbird and features an aging Atticus who has embraced racist views and even attends a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. Despite seriously mixed reviews, and doubts surrounding whether Lee actually wanted it published, the book was a huge hit, selling 1.1 million copies in its first week. The following year, Harper Lee died in Monroeville, at the age of 89.