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A 1964 interview

Harper Lee from a 1964 interview

Any claims for To Kill a Mockingbird as a book that changed history could not have seemed more far-fetched one winter night in 1958, as Nelle Harper Lee huddled in her outer-borough New York apartment trying to finesse her unruly, episodic manuscript into some semblance of a cohesive novel. All but drowning in multiple drafts of the same material, Lee suddenly threw open a window and scattered five years of work onto the dirty snow below.

Did Lee really intend to destroy To Kill a Mockingbird? We'll never know. Fortunately, in the next moment, she called her editor. J.B. Lippincott's formidable Tay Hohoff promptly sent her outside to gather all the pages back–thus rescuing To Kill a Mockingbird from the slush.

The novel had its origins in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama—the small, Southern town that the fictional Maycomb is based upon. Her father's unsuccessful defense of a black man and his son accused of murder, in addition to the Scottsboro Boys trials and another notorious interracial rape case, helped to shape Lee's budding social conscience and sense of a dramatic story.

Along with his legal practice, Lee's father published and edited the town newspaper. His regard for the written word impacted Lee's sensibility as surely as his respect for the law. Lee would name her idealized vision of her father after Titus Pomponius Atticus, a friend of the Roman orator Cicero renowned as, according to Lee, "a wise, learned and humane man." For a long time, Lee called her work in progress Atticus. Once she fastened on To Kill a Mockingbird she did not look back.

An early version of the novel, titled Go Set a Watchman, featured Scout as an adult returning to Maycomb. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, asked her to rewrite the story from a child’s perspective, which she did. Until recently, the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was believed lost. It was discovered decades later and published by HarperCollins in July 2015.

Lippincott finally published To Kill a Mockingbird on July 11, 1960, by which time an unprecedented four national mail-order book clubs had already selected it for their readers. The first line of the Washington Post's review echoed many similar notices that praised the novel for its moral impact: "A hundred pounds of sermons on tolerance, or an equal measure of invective deploring the lack of it, will weigh far less in the scale of enlightenment than a mere 18 ounces of new fiction bearing the title To Kill a Mockingbird."

Eighty weeks later, the novel still perched on the hardcover bestseller list. During that time, it had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the hearts of American readers. One can't help wondering how literary history might have been different had Harper Lee thrown her manuscript out the window on a slightly windier night.

"Writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer. There are people who write, but I think they're quite different from people who must write."