Why Did Harper Lee Wrote The Novel To Kill A Mockingbird

What influenced Harper Lee to write the novel To Kill a Mockingbird?

There are several influences throughout Harper Lee's life, some outlined in her autobiography Mockingbird, that possibly helped her write To Kill A Mockingbird, including a case in her hometown Monroeville, in which a white woman falsely accused a black man, Walter Lett, of raping her. The story was covered in her father's newspaper. Her father was an editor but also an attorney, and he once defended two black men accused of killing a white storeowner, a case which probably inspired her, as well, especially in creating the character Atticus. 

 

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In writing To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee was most probably motivated by a desire to explore some of the themes associated with growing up in a small Southern town, such as the persistence of racial prejudice, both official and unofficial. And she clearly believed that the best way of doing this was through a semi-autobiographical approach.

Had Harper Lee used a more didactic approach in her writing—that is to say, attempting to teach her readers a moral lesson—then it's likely that she would've been much less effective. For the most part, people don't take kindly to being preached at, and so if a writer has something important to say, then it's generally much better for them to do through the medium of recognizable characters with whom we can identity.

That's what Harper Lee does in To Kill a Mockingbird. She expertly presents the reader with a whole range of issues, some complex, some less so, through the lives of ordinary folk in a regular small Southern town during the Great Depression. In this way, she paints a portrait of Southern life during this period that is generally regarded as accurate and which also speaks to different people from different backgrounds and historical periods through the colorful characters depicted in the story and the universal themes with which the book deals.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on April 1, 2020
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While we can use historical criticism to speculate on why Harper Lee wrote the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, unless she tells us, we cannot truly know. Another form of literary criticism could just as easily provide another interpretation of this novel.

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Harper Lee has always claimed that her novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" was not autobiographical. However, there are a number of similarities to Lee's life and the life of Scout and Atticus Finch. Lee's father was a southern lawyer, like Atticus. According to childhood friends, Lee was a tomboy like Scout. And Lee had a special friend like Dill because every summer the boy who would become the celebrated author Truman Capote used to visit. Many believe that Lee was influenced by what influences many writers and that was her own personal experience. In addition, Lee wanted to say something about the civil rights movement which was at its height in 1960 when the book was published. Even though the setting of the book is in the 1930's, the novel has much to say about the fair treatment of all people, especially African-Americans.Lee addresses prejudice and tolerance and especially the courage it takes to make societal change. These ideas, combined with her personal experiences, probably influenced Lee to write her Pulitzer prize winning novel.

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According to several sources, including the most recent autobiography of Harper Lee entitled Mockingbird, one could argue that there are several models on which the incidents in To Kill a Mockingbird and the character of Tom Robinson are based. When Lee was 10 years old, a white woman near Monroeville falsely accused a black man named Walter Lett of raping her. The story and the trial were covered by her father's newspaper, and Lett was convicted and sentenced to death. After a series of letters appeared claiming Lett had been falsely accused, his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died in prison of tuberculosis in 1937. The plot of the novel may have also been influenced by the notorious case of the "Scottsboro Boys" in which nine black men (many of whom were teenagers at the time) were falsely convicted of raping two white women on very poor, circumstancial evidence. However, in 2005 Lee stated that she had in mind something less sensational, although the Scottsboro case served "the same purpose" as the trial of Tom Robinson did in the novel, which was to expose the long standing prejudices of the South.

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