Happy birthday, Atticus Finch

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the single most important book in my life.

I didn’t read a book until I was 20 years old. It’s true! They attempted to force-feed me while attending my below-average schools, but I made it clear that I would only read a book under protest and made every effort to not finish it. I usually succeeded.

Flash to age 20. I’m in the Coast Guard (no university for me, thanks!) and freshly arrived in New York City. I didn’t know a soul. I’d not felt so isolated and all alone before or since. At that time, New York was a dirty, overwhelming, scary mess. But I got sick of sitting around and starring at my shoelaces, so I decided to go exploring.

I took the R train from Whitehall up to Central Park. On the way, I passed a street peddler who was selling books. I gave birth to, what I imagined was, the most original and exciting idea ever conceived. I was going to sit in the park and read a book. I thought that voluntarily reading a book was a courageous act.

I looked over the books spread out on the sidewalk (I can still picture it to this day) and saw a tattered, worn paperback of To Kill a Mockingbird. I remembered that some of my friends in school had to read it, so I thought I’d give it a try. Plus, it was thin and that appealed to me.

I sat down on a Central Park bench, opened the book and began reading. I was a different man when I got up off that bench. It was a defining moment. That book sucked me in and I haven’t stopped reading since. It opened a door for me. I became a reader because of To Kill a Mockingbird. What a gift!

In 2005 I got the notion to write to Harper Lee and tell her how much her book meant to me. I wrote that, because of her book, I’m living a better and more interesting life than someone without a college degree could have expected to. I wrote that I’m a better father to my daughters and honestly don’t know what would have become of me if her book hadn’t introduced me to reading. I worked hard on the letter and was pleased with the results.

Harper Lee is a recluse who shuns publicity. All I knew was that she lived in Monroeville, Alabama, so I sent the letter to Harper Lee, c/o Monroeville, AL. I never expected it to arrive, much less be read by her, but I had to get that off my chest.

Just a few short days after I sent my letter, I received the following:


lee+11The fact that I moved Harper Lee to write such an elegant thank-you note is meaningful to me. The funny coda is that a few days after that, I received ANOTHER note from Ms. Lee. She couldn’t remember whether or not she sent a thank-you note.

“Forgive me if this is a repeat letter; I’m old, my eyesight is failing and I’m FORGETFUL. I may have forgot that I replied to you, but I know one thing: I’ll never forget your letter. In 45 years of receiving fan mail, I never had a letter mean so much to me. Thank you for it.”

Happy birthday, Atticus. Thanks for saving me from a boring life.

131 thoughts on “Happy birthday, Atticus Finch

  1. OMG! I am knocked over by your response from Harper Lee and I’m impressed that she took the time to let you know how much she valued your words.Yours must have been the kind of letter that makes a writer feel that they have left the world a better place.Good for you for going to the trouble to make sure she knew the impact she made on your life even when you thought your letter might never reach her.Not to try to claim kinship as we say in the south, but since you know me as GOTJ, you may not know that my surname name is Harper.

  2. I forgot to say … there’s a well worn copy ofHarper Lee’s, ” To Kill A Mockingbird ” on my bookshelf. It was an easy decision when I was struggling to sort through my books back in the US while trying to decide what I would ship to the UK in my 200 cubic feet of space.Can you tell I’m a fan?

    • The letter was well crafted, if I do say so myself. I couldn’t believe I got a response. When I pulled the letter from the mail, I stood there stunned. I love the name Harper.

  3. Your heart must have been so full of gratitude, I can only imagine how moving it must have been for her to read your letter. That is clearly why she replied to you. I am touched by both your gesture and hers too.And I also love To Kill A Mockingbird. One of my favorite books. Ever. An absolute American classic.Yes, happy birthday Atticus.

    • Thank you. I hope nobody thinks I’m just bragging that I have a thank-you note from Harper Lee. That’s not my intention.

  4. Wow, that is a wonderful story. To think that a book could have had such a powerful impact on your life. I’m glad you took the time to write that letter to Harper Lee. Loved the book too (and the movie as well). When I was in 6th grade I played Mrs. Merriweather the teacher (think that was the name) in a school play.

    • I think it was the right book that came along at just the right moment. If it hadn’t been that book, would it have been another? Or would I have missed the reading boat entirely? I’ll never know for sure.

    • I most certainly do NOT have a first edition! I wish! That book is a landmark of American literature. A nice 1st would set you back anywhere from $10-20,000.

  5. That note is awesome.To Kill a Mockingbird is the most perfect book ever written. I read it on my own at some point during my early teens. By the time they introduced it in school, I’d read it several times.I used to teach a single chapter to my seventh graders in total defiance of curriculum. It was the one where Atticus shoots the rabid dog. It’s just a perfect chapter that shows, shows shows. Show, don’t tell is my bane and that is my shining example.

    • Beautifully written and, don’t take this the wrong way, easy to read. It can be enjoyed on a deep level by the masses. That’s the beauty of it.

  6. Harper Lee has had all the accolades in the world piled onto her, so the way you told her what her book meant to you, must have been very special indeed.

    • I hope that’s true. Sometimes I wonder if it was her Southern hospitality that drove her to write such a nice note.

    • I stood there in my dumb silence when I first read the note. Mrs. Wife thought I was reading bad news!

  7. Wow, I love this post. I feel like you just pulled a rabbit, ever so subtly, from your sleeve.What a great gift you gave Ms Lee, and she you.I too love To Kill A Mockingbird, but cannot claim to be so greatly affected. A funny aside is that in reading your post A Catcher In the Rye was firmly in place in my mind – you conjured all the greats!

    • She has always kept a very low profile so I can see how you would think that. She’s OLD but still around.

  8. How lovely that she took the time to write to you.I have to confess. I haven’t read the book. It’s on my bookcase. Unread. Maybe today I’ll take it down and have a bit of a read.Thank you

  9. I hope it’s okay, but I had to direct people from my blog to this incredible post–the more I think about it, the more I love it. And by the way, my whole family read it and loved it too.

  10. how cool is that…i fell in love with reading at an early age…i remember one day fumbling my way out of the house screaming for my mother that i had been struck blind…i had read so long my eyes became tired and after rest i could once again see but the memory has stayed with me. very cool about harper lee and the note back to you…

    • It was an unexpected surprise, to say the least. I’m reading to my daughters every night so they don’t have to wait until they’re 21 to enjoy reading.

    • It really WAS a happy ending! What if I had never learned to love books? What would have become of me?

  11. Hi, there. Leah sent me. What a truly amazing story. I also have a book that introduced and adult-me to reading, but as it is not nearly so good or meaningful as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I shall decline to mention it by name. (My pride)Now, I make a point of writing to authors if their work has moved me. Whether they are big names or unknowns. If I were them, I would want to know. I’ll have to thank Leah for her recommendation.

    • I thanked Leah, as well. I love her Brooklyn virtual home and actually use to live in that neighborhood! What are the odds of THAT happening?!

  12. I’m so glad I followed Leah’s instructions to visit.As a reader I can’t think of anything nicer than a letter from a writer I admire and as a writer I can’t think of anything nicer than a letter such as yours, from a reader.

    • The funny thing is that you can read a book later in life and enjoy it on a completely different level. Catcher in the Rye reads much differently as an adult than it did as a raging teen.

  13. I followed this link through ‘The Weather on the Streets;, and I am so glad I did. I am so moved. I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes, my coffee cold. You see, that book had a huge impact on my life, too. You write about it with such eloquent simplicity. How wonderful that you sent your heart-song to Harper Lee and she answered, and now you have shared it with all who read you … such beauty-filled notes.Thank you.

  14. A great story about a great book! I’m more of a movie guy (probably something to do with my attention span), and don’t have a great memory for books. But this one touched me, and I still remember large parts of it.Being from a different country, and somehow having had the impression that it was a ham-fisted “message” book, I didn’t expect to like it, or be able to relate to it, when I picked it up. But I suppose bigotry, courage, and a portrait of the ultimate parent, can strike a chord with virtually anyone…

    • Now that you mention it, I suppose it could be a bit ham-fisted, but the quality of the writing rises above it.

  15. Harper Lee is my favorite author and TKAM is by far my favorite book! I taught it every year when I was teaching high school English, regardless of what age level I was teaching. I am stunned and impressed that she wrote such a wonderful thank you letter, considering how much mail she would have gotten over the years. Your letter must have really touched her! BTW, I linked over from Here in Franklin.

    • As I mentioned, they taught it in my school as well but at that time, I thought reading was boring. Oh, the wasted years.

  16. Great story man…A couple of thoughts: This is a tale that reminds us that the great creators are just people too. To share with them how we are truly and deeply affected by their art has an impact greater than any review or award. I genuinely believe everyone hopes to leave behind a work of such transformative power…but rarely can ever know. You have guaranteed your entrance into heaven for affirming the worthiness of her creative struggle.It’s been since, like Freshman year in H.S., but I have GOT to go get a copy and read it again…..and maybe I’ll even use this an a opportunity to use ever wholesome Raleigh Public Library, something that I got away from years ago….seems only right.

  17. wow. fantastic post. one of my faves so far (‘frailty, thy name is unbearable banishment being a close second’).

  18. Another visitor from Leah. What a great post this is. And you know what got me the most? Her penmanship. So rare to see that hand these days.

    • Hemingway had really great penmanship as well. It’s a dying art form, just like letterpress printing. We still make our daughter’s write thank-you notes, though. It’s the right thing to teach.

    • I love that people are sharing this. The attention is great, of course, but it’s an important story. It’s more than just my brush with celebrity.

  19. Leah sent me here and I am so glad that I came. That is a cool letter and I can remember reading that book in High School. It is a book one never forgets if you read it. It is a classic. Very cool that you moved her and you are blessed to do this.God bless.

  20. Leah sent me here, too. :p What an amazing letter. I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird…I get viscerally, physically affected by traumatic books (racism, injustice, etc, rank right up there for trauma for me), and after watching the movie, I haven’t been able to bring myself to read the book. This post and the following comments are giving me second thoughts, but I will have to work myself up to it.

    • The book is not terribly intense. You could skip over the approaching-mob scene but otherwise most of it is pretty easy to take. I can guarantee you’ll never forget it.

  21. That is quite amazing. I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time when I was 13, maybe 14. 6 or 7 reads later it was established as my favourite book.In TY, our English teacher asked for suggestions for what to read and inevitably I suggested it and inevitably overanalysis in a school context killed it. I haven’t read it since.Maybe I’ll pick it up in the library again 🙂

    • How young it too young for that book? I don’t want to give it to my 11-year old yet. The language is too intense. But I want her to read it and hope it makes the same indelible impression on her that id did on me.

  22. What a lovely story. And thank god you picked up the right book that day. I can never understand when people tell me they don’t read novels – they give life shape, meaning, texture …

    • Out of nowhere, isn’t it? It knocked me on my ass when the note arrived. I knew who it was as soon as I saw the writing on the envelope.

  23. What a lovely story, equally in your telling her about the effects the book made, and equally from her in her generous acknowldgement of them.I’d better read it now then!

    • I must have rewritten that note five or six times. I go back and reread it and I still see things I’d like to change. No matter. It did the trick. Yes, get it on your reading list immediately.

    • She’s an old, old woman but she’s still around. Maybe she’ll publish that second novel before she goes. Hope so.

  24. Holy crap, that’s awesome. No, beyond awesome. Phenomenal, even. What an unbelievably wonderful gift you gave her, and what an unbelievably wonderful gift you received in return. And it’s a great book. I saw the movie before I read the book, though, so of course I was picturing Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall as Atticus and Boo. And I laughed out loud at the part where you said you gave birth to the idea of sitting in the park reading a book. GENIUS!!

    • The beauty of that film is not only the content but that it’s so perfectly cast. Even the part of Gem and Scout are right on the money—and children actors tend to annoy me.

      That was probably my last original idea and it was many years ago. Still trying to birth another one.

    • Did I ever think something I wrote would be part of Harper Lee’s archive. Hell no. I never once thought the note would GET there, much less be read by her and then instigate a response. Miraculous.

  25. That’s fantastic. It’s brought the first tears of the day to my eyes. One should always write letters. You never know where they lead. x

    • And there’s something deeply moving and satisfying about getting a hand-written response. It’s so old world. A sad reminder of how some good things have gone out of style.

  26. Wow! It must have been so wonderful a feeling for you to have received a letter from a person as great as Harper Lee. ‘To kill a Mocking bird’ is undoubtedly one of the best books I have read in this lifetime and I love it, I love Harper Lee for writing it and now after reading your post, I just wish to say: I love you for sharing your story out here. Reading it meant a lot to me, in just an unexplainable sort of a way (:

    • Thanks for your kind words. I never once thought I’d hear back from her. I remember the day her note arrived I stood there starring at the envelope in disbelieve. I’ve always wished she had written a second book. I wonder how she resisted all those decades? She’s a writer, after all, and a writer can’t NOT write. Perhaps there’s a massive archive waiting to be revealed.

  27. What an amazing and touching story! I’ve always been an avid reader. I was the girl with her nose in a book while the world carried on around her. I now encourage my own children to love reading, and am so proud when I catch them curled up lost in a book. Recently, my 11 year old daughter told me how she still prefers a “real book” to her kindle. Be still my heart!

    • Thanks, very much, for your note. I love your daughter’s comment. I hope books never die completely. I occasionally open one of my old paperbacks and a train ticket will tumble out or a note that’s scribbled in a margin will trigger a memory. That sort of memory-poke can never happen with a kindle.

  28. I re-read TKAM this year, about 35 years after I read it in high school. Having watched each of my 3 kids read it, and so many of their friend, I felt like it was time to revisit this classic. Frankly, I went it to it cynically. So many kids complain about reading it. I loved the movie. When I picked it up, I figured I might be very disappointed, because time and the movie and blurred my perceptions, and maybe it wasn’t as good as I’d remembered. Wrong! So very wrong! This book took my breath away. I have read a lot (a LOT) of books, and many VERY good ones… but this really blew me away! I wanted to highlight sentence after sentence: the sheer beautify of Ms. Lee’s words are so perfect. Perfection, that is really what I felt as I read and finished it. I’ve felt silly telling people about my favorite “new” read, but I am guessing, that many of them need to rediscover this book as well.

    I was perusing other Carnie posts, and was thrilled to find yours. I can totally understand how this particular book would change a life. And the letter, well… beyond sublime.

    • Thanks, tons, for stopping by. As another commenter said above, it’s a perfectly-written book. I recently reread it with the same kind of caution that you approached it with. There’s no WAY it could live up to my memory (so I reasoned). I’ve blown it up WAY out of proportion. Wrong. It knocked me flat on my ass again. Not many things are able to sustain that kind of thrill throughout your life. It becomes harder and harder to be impressed. But this has been the one constant. I’ll always love this book.

  29. This is amazing. TKMB is my favorite book of all time, so I am not surprised it had such a profound effect on you. What an honor to have been able to express that to Harper Lee and have it mean so much to her.

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