Last night New Yorkers celebrated the 50th anniversary of a singular piece of American literature, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel that tells the iconic story of a moral lawyer, his two children, and his courageous quest to defend an innocent black man in the depression era South. The book is required reading for most students and has sold more than 10 million copies.
The special birthday celebration was held at Symphony Space, an arts center on the Upper West Side and featured a knowledgeable and passionate panel, including writers Kurt Anderson, Libba Bray, Mary McDonagh Murphy, Jayne Anne Phillips; the artistic director of the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis; and TV personality Steven Colbert, who arrived an hour late because he was finishing filming his show, The Colbert Report.
As the house lights went down the panels moderator (and founder of Symphony Space), Isaiah Sheffer, stressed the challenge of justly celebrating such an important book.
"How do you celebrate the 50th anniversary of a book?" Shaffer asked. "You can try to understand how it affects people."
Panel members recounted their first experiences with the novel. Anderson, a former editor-in-chief of New York Magazine, said he discovered the book when he was growing up in Nebraska. "Reading it during the civil rights movement gave added weight," he said. "It certainly put white people's heads in the right direction."
Murphy, who recently wrote a book interviewing celebrities about their experiences with the novel, described how she was inspired to read it after discovering that the academic community at her college, Stanford University, looked down upon it. "We don't read that here," she was told. This prompted discussion about the novel's rare status as a work adored both by children and adults.
Mr. Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, recounted how when he was growing up, the girl he liked dreamily told him that she "wanted to marry a man like Atticus Finch." Curious to discover more about Finch he read the book for the first time.
"Atticus Finch is a devilish invention to make American men feel inadequate, and fathers even more so," he said. "He's like Gary Cooper. He's a piece of American iconography. The power of his courage is infectious, as well as how it brings people up with him."
When Mr. Colbert finally appeared on stage he explained that he was a serious fan of the novel. He lamented that he didn't read it until he was in his 20's but that he has reread it every couple years since.
"My copy is all worn out and held by a rubber band," he said.
Colbert then took the podium, removed his trademark spectacles, and began reading one of the novel's courtroom scenes. He spoke loudly, holding long pauses and using different accents for each of the novel's characters. It was like a one man play.
Towards the end of the panel, the discussion turned to why Ms. Lee never penned another novel, or attempted to write a sequel to Mockingbird. Phillips, a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award said, "Real writers don't do sequels."
Other panel members argued it was because Ms. Lee didn't think she could follow the immense success of Mockingbird. "She had nowhere to go," said Murphy. "A book that successful for a first outing was not good for her career."
"It killed her career," Eustis said. Then he mused, "Maybe if she had written another book, which wasn't as good, then the hoopla over her first one would have eventually been forgotten." Phillips responded, "That kind of hoopla doesn't get forgotten."