To Kill a Mockingbird was the result of a generous Christmas gift.
We all look for that perfect present for those we care about. Something both meaningful and inspiring. In the late 1950s, a Broadway composer and his wife gave just such a gift to a struggling young writer named Nelle Harper Lee.
Lee wanted to write after developing an interest in English literature in high school. After graduation, she attended Huntingdon College in Alabama for one year, and focused on writing. She then transferred to the University of Alabama to study law before turning her sights back to writing. She wrote for the university newspaper before dropping out of college without achieving a degree, opting to move to New York to pursue a writing career.
To support herself in New York, Lee worked for several years as an airline ticket agent. She struggled with working to support herself and having the time and energy to write. Luckily for Lee, she befriended Michael and Joy Brown. Michael was a popular composer and lyricist who worked on Broadway, and was financially well off.
For Christmas 1956, the Browns gave Lee a generous gift: one year’s wages. With the gift came a note saying, ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.’ Who could say no to that? Lee quit her airline job, and once free to write what she wanted, produced the story that would become To Kill a Mockingbird.
Reportedly, the first draft read like several short stories stitched together, rather than a seamlessly written novel. But the Browns had also put Lee in touch with a literary agent, Maurice Crain. With Crain and editor Tay Hohoff, Lee reworked the initial manuscript, and two and a half years of rewrites followed. Even after those rewrites, Lee was warned that the book probably wouldn’t sell more than few thousand copies.
However, Lee’s hard work paid off beyond her wildest expectation. Perhaps it was published at just the right time, as the civil rights movement was kicking off in earnest. Whatever the reason, the book’s popularity skyrocketed shortly after its publication in 1960. It was picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild, featured in Reader’s Digest, and won a variety of literary awards, including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. By 1962, it had been made into an award-winning movie.
To Kill a Mockingbird has now sold over 30 million copies, and has been translated into 40 languages and remains hugely relevant even today. In 2009, it was reported that Lee was still earning $9,249 in royalties every day. At the time of her death in early 2016, Lee’s estate was valued at over $45 million. The Brown’s original Christmas gift to Harper Lee had multiplied many times over.