On this day in 1960, Harper Lee published her seminal work ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.
”I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”
In 1957, a year after receiving a gift of a years wages with the note ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas’, Lee sold the manuscript for Go Set A Watchman to J B Lippincott Company. The novel sparked considerable interest at the publishing house, where Therese von Hohoff Torrey provided guidance and support for the aspiring author in order to formulate a series of drafts which would eventually result in its final form, renamed ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.
”After a couple of false starts, the story-line, interplay of characters, and fall of emphasis grew clearer, and with each revision — there were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in her own vision of it — the true stature of the novel became evident.”
-Therese von Hohoff Torrey
After publication, Mockingbird saw instant popularity and critical acclaim, winning the Pullitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The novel continues to be a bestseller, with over 30 million copies in print, and the book becoming a favourite for use in school studies, with its analysis of themes of race and justice proving an apparently timeless critique and opportunity for understanding 1960s America, applying this to a more modern perspective.
In 2015, despite Lee’s insistence that To Kill A Mockingbird would remain her sole publication, Harpercollins published ‘Go Set A Watchman’, originally intended to be the first in a trilogy including the later Mockingbird book. Set 20 years after the period within Lee’s first book, Watchman faced a less receptive critical response with much speculation as to the state of mind Lee had been in when signing over the rights for publication.