Saturday, May 29, 2010

Compelling Novel's 50th Anniversary

Classic Courtroom Novel on 1930s
Race, Rape and the Deep South~
Celebrations Bring to Life Harper Lee's compelling story

By JULIE BOSMAN Published: May 24, 2010, New York Times, Books

In Santa Cruz, Calif., volunteers will re-enact every word and movement in the famous courtroom scene. In Monroeville, Ala., residents dressed in 1930s garb will read aloud from memorable passages. In Rhinebeck, N.Y., Oblong Books will host a party with Mocktails and recorded music by the indie band the Boo Radleys.
All summer “To Kill a Mockingbird” will be relived through at least 50 events around the country, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the publication of a book that became a cultural touchstone and an enduring staple of high-school reading programs.

Its publisher, HarperCollins, is trying to tap into what appears to be a near-endless reserve of affection for the book by helping to organize parties, movie screenings, readings and scholarly discussions. The publisher has recruited Tom Brokaw and other authors to take part by reading from the novel — which tells the story of the small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends a black man accused of rape, and his family — in their hometowns.

Of course, there is also the hope that the events, which are scheduled to run through Sept. 22, will drum up more sales of the book. HarperCollins plans to issue four new editions of the novel next month, each with a different cover and all to be placed on special “Mockingbird” -themed floor displays in bookstores.

Perhaps the largest concentration of celebrations for the book are in Monroeville, which calls itself the “literary capital of Alabama” after its most famous resident, the “Mockingbird” author Harper Lee. The city is planning four days of events, including silent auctions, a walking tour of downtown, a marathon reading of the book in the county courthouse and a birthday party on the courthouse lawn.

The festivities are not expected to attract an appearance by the mysterious Ms. Lee, who is 84 and still living quietly in Alabama after never publishing another book. “Harper Lee has always been a very private person,” said Tina Andreadis, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins. “The legacy of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ speaks for itself.”

Few novels have achieved both the mass popularity and the literary cachet of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book was originally published in 1960 by J. B. Lippincott and Company (now part of HarperCollins), won a Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since. It has sold nearly one million copies a year and in the past five years has been the second-best-selling backlist title in the country, beaten out only by the novel “The Kite Runner.”

Interest in the book intensified after the 2005 film “Capote,” in which Catherine Keener played Ms. Lee, and grew even stronger the next year, when Sandra Bullock played her in “Infamous.”

Sales of the book are especially robust in the South, including Kentucky, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Florida, and in the Midwest, particularly Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Mr. Brokaw, who will read from the novel in a bookstore in Bozeman, Mont., on July 11, said he vividly recalls reading it as a 20-year-old college sophomore in South Dakota in 1960.

“I just remember being utterly absorbed by it, and inspired by Atticus, and very taken by Scout,” Mr. Brokaw said. “Those are very powerful characters. And I don’t remember another book about the South that treated race in quite that fashion.”

Mary McDonagh Murphy, a writer and documentary director whose book, “Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of 50 Years of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’,” will be published in June, called “Mockingbird” “our national novel.”

“I can’t name another book that is this popular, that tells such a good story, has such indelible characters and makes a social statement without being preachy,” Ms. Murphy said. “It is plain in the very best sense of the word.”

Less plain is Ms. Lee’s response to the unceasing popularity of her one and only book. Executives at HarperCollins said they began planning the summer-long celebration of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the assumption that Ms. Lee would not take part. “She’s almost never given interviews,” said Kathy Schneider, a senior vice president and associate publisher at HarperCollins. “That’s why we didn’t expect her to participate in a big way.”

Ms. Murphy, who has interviewed Ms. Lee’s sister Alice Lee, said that Harper Lee was unhappy that in interviews decades ago, reporters did not quote her precisely. And she also had a philosophical issue — “that writers should not be familiar and recognizable,” Ms. Murphy said. “That was for entertainers.”

Wally Lamb, a novelist who will be part of a panel discussion about the book in Wilton, Conn., in September, said he believes Ms. Lee’s quiet stance evokes Boo Radley, a character to whom Ms. Lee has compared herself.

“One of the things that I find really cool about her is what I consider her caginess,” Mr. Lamb said. “And I think maybe the mystery surrounding her, and that sort of silence that she decided to maintain with the media, that becomes part of the legend of the book.”

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images -- Harper Lee in 2007, above her --
one of four new covers for reissue of her novel

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 26, 2010
An article on Tuesday about celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird” misstated the plans for musical entertainment at a party at Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y. The store will be playing recorded music by the group the Boo Radleys; the band broke up in 1999, and therefore will not be appearing at the Rhinebeck event.

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