11 Facts About To Kill A Mockingbird

istock (blank book, background)
istock (blank book, background)

It has been nearly 60 years since Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was published, and the story still resonates with readers. The coming-of-age tale about racial injustice in the south was a phenomenal success from the start, and has only become more popular with time.

1. The Book Drew On Lee’s Childhood In Alabama

While To Kill A Mockingbird is not autobiographical, there are similarities between the novel and Lee’s life. The book is set in Maycomb, Alabama, the fictional name for Monroeville, where Lee grew up. Like the main character Scout, Lee was a tomboy who was uncomfortable with traditional femininity. She and Scout would have been the same age and her brother Edwin was four years older, just like Scout's brother Jem. She even gave the family her mother’s maiden name, Finch.

2. Dill Was Based on Truman Capote

Lee modeled the neighbor boy Dill after Capote. As a child, Capote—the author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast At Tiffany’s—lived next door to Lee. They played together and even shared Lee’s typewriter. Both children were outside the social circles of their close-knit Southern town. As Gerald Clarke wrote in Capote: A Biography, “Nelle was too rough for most other girls, and Truman was too soft for most other boys.”

Capote’s first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms, has a tomboy character resembling Lee. Her name is Idabel Thompkins.

3. Lee Grew Up In The Courtroom

Like the character Atticus, Lee’s father, AC Lee, was a lawyer. Soft-spoken and dignified, he defended two African American men accused of murder and lost the case. Lee spent much of her childhood in the Monroeville courthouse. “Her father was a lawyer, and she and I used to go to trials all the time as children," Capote said. "We went to the trials instead of going to the movies."

Lee herself went to law school, but hated it and dropped out.

4. Boo Radley May Also Be Inspired From Life

In the book, Boo Radley is a recluse who leaves presents for the children in a tree. He may have been modeled after a real man, Son Boulware, who lived in Monroeville when Lee was a child. According to Capote, “He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything [Lee] wrote about it is absolutely true.”

5. Go Set A Watchman Was Written Before Mockingbird

Lee wrote Go Set A Watchman in the 1950s. Set 20 years after To Kill A Mockingbird, it contains many of the same characters and themes. An editor who read the manuscript loved a flashback about Scout’s childhood and told Lee to write a book from the child’s point of view. Lee then started To Kill A Mockingbird.

Go Set A Watchman was thought to be lost until it was recently discovered in Lee’s archives.

6. Lee Was Able To Write Because Of A Gift From Friends

After finishing school, Lee moved to New York and worked as an airline reservationist. One Christmas, her friends Joy and Michael Brown gave her a gift: enough money to write for one year. In an essay for McCall’s in 1961, Lee wrote that they told her to quit her job and write whatever she wanted, no strings attached. “Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them.”

7. The Book Changed Considerably During Editing

Lee’s agent sent To Kill A Mockingbird to 10 publishers and all of them turned it down. Finally, the publisher Lippincott accepted the manuscript, even though it needed a lot of work. “There were dangling threads of a plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, and an end—that was inherent in the beginning,” according to editor Tay Hohoff. “It is an indication of how seriously we were impressed by the author that we signed a contract at that point.”

There followed “a long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over again,” said Lee. It was published in 1960.

8. Lee Thought The Novel Would Fail

In 1964, Lee said she “[N]ever expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I didn't expect the book to sell in the first place.” But the novel was an immediate success. Not only was it a best-seller, it was followed up with an Oscar-winning movie starring Gregory Peck. It also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Today, the book sells almost a million copies a year, more than fellow 20th century classics The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye.

9. Truman Capote Didn’t Write The Novel

At some point, a rumor started that Capote wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, or at least edited it. Aside from the fact that Lee’s writing sounds nothing like Capote’s, he only saw the manuscript once. In 1959, Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas to research In Cold Blood. During that trip, she showed him a finished version of Mockingbird, which was about to go to print. Since the book was done, it would have been impossible for Capote to edit it, let alone write it.

10. In Fact, It's Said That Capote Was Jealous Of The Novel’s Success

While Capote initially seemed supportive, the friendship soured as Lee’s novel was increasingly lauded. According to Alice Lee, “Truman became very jealous because Nelle Harper got a Pulitzer and he did not. He expected In Cold Blood to bring him one, and he got involved with the drugs and heavy drinking and all. And that was it. It was not Nelle Harper dropping him. It was Truman going away from her.”

11. Lee Hated The Spotlight

When asked about her success in 1964, Lee called it frightening, saying her reaction was “sheer numbness. It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold.” While she never became the “Jane Austen of south Alabama” as she once hoped, she did work on a true crime novel in the 1970s. Here’s hoping it too sees the light of day.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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