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Harper Lee

Nancy G. Anderson, Auburn University at Montgomery
Nelle Harper Lee
Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) is the author of one of the most affecting and widely read books of American literature. In creating To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Lee drew deeply and essentially from her coming-of-age years in the small town of Monroeville, Monroe County, Alabama. Lee's Pulitzer Prize?winning novel explores the dimensions of prejudice, hate, loyalty, and love through the eyes of a young girl as she awakens to the complexities of human nature and its capacity for both good and evil. In July 2015, Lee published Go Set a Watchman, the original incarnation of To Kill a Mockingbirdthat was discovered in a safety-deposit box in Monroeville. It met with widespread public interest and media focus.
Lee was born in Monroeville on April 28, 1926, the youngest child of Amasa Coleman Lee, a lawyer, and Frances Finch, who apparently struggled with episodes of mental illness (perhaps what is now diagnosed as manic depression). Lee denied that the story of To Kill a Mockingbird is autobiographical, but her fiction was certainly influenced and shaped by her childhood experiences, shared with a brother and two sisters and fellow author-to-be Truman Capote, a frequent summer visitor to Monroeville. As she described this period of her life in a 1965 interview, "We had to use our own devices in our play, for our entertainment. We didn't have much money . . . . We didn't have toys, nothing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imagination most of the time. We devised things; we were readers and we would transfer everything we had seen on the printed page to the backyard in the form of high drama."
Lee attended the public grammar school and high school in Monroeville. She developed an interest in writing during her childhood and continued to write when she attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery, from 1944 through 1945. In 1945, she transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to study law but left in 1949 without completing her degree. While at UA, Lee wrote columns, feature stories, and satires for the university newspaper and literary publications. In 1949, she left Alabama to pursue a literary career in New York.
Lee worked in a briefly in a bookstore in New York but then became an airline reservations clerk so that her work during the day differed from the mental energy required by her commitment to writing at night. After some time and with a financial contribution from friends, a gift she remembers in "Christmas to Me," she was able to quit her job and write full time. Over a period of several years, interrupted by the deaths of her mother and her brother and other responsibilities, she worked on her novel. After completing the manuscript in 1959, Lee went to Kansas with Truman Capote to provide research assistance while he worked on the manuscript for his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. He dedicated the book to her, along with his then partner Jack Dunphy, and credited her with "secretarial work" and with befriending some of the individuals with whom he sought interviews. Her only comment on the expedition has been that "the crime intrigued Truman, and I'm intrigued with crime, and boy, I wanted to go. It was deep calling to deep." Reports, both oral and written, persisted that Harper Lee was working for years on a project similar to Capote's In Cold Blood, but no such manuscript has ever been found. Reportedly titled The Reverend, the work was said to have been about a series of unsolved murders in a small town in central Alabama.
To Kill a Mockingbird (friends say that she called it "The Bird") was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961. Published during the civil-rights era, which focused the eyes of the world on her home state, Lee's novel is set in the 1930s, the decade during which Alabama's infamous "Scottsboro Trials" took place. In the novel, Lee relates events through her narrator, Jean Louise ("Scout") Finch. She and her brother Jem are reared by Atticus, their widowed father, and Calpurnia, the African American domestic servant whom Atticus trusts with their care while he works in his law office. Atticus's sister, Alexandria, occasionally interferes, especially after Scout starts school. In the summers, Dill (a character loosely based on Capote) visits his aunt and helps Scout and Jem invent schemes to lure an eccentric neighbor, Arthur "Boo" Radley, from his home. The children also become embroiled in the tension and conflict that result from Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. To the children's dismay, despite convincing evidence and moving arguments, Atticus fails to secure an acquittal for Tom from the all-white, all-male jury. Later, Tom is shot in prison. Mayella's father, Bob, seeks revenge on Atticus for embarrassing his family by attacking Scout and Jem, an attack thwarted by Boo Radley that brings together the plots, and thus the themes, of the novel.
The success of To Kill a Mockingbird was so immediate that the novel's release was described as a "summer storm." Critics praised Lee for capturing the setting of a small southern town with its complex social fabric of blacks and whites of all classes, from aristocratic to hard-working middle class to "white trash." Other reviewers commented on its narrative technique, characterization, balance of humor and tragedy, use of symbolism, and careful interweaving of numerous themes, such as childhood innocence and adult perceptions, justice and injustice, racial tolerance and intolerance, and cowardice and courage, whether the physical courage of facing a lynch mob and shooting a rabid dog or the courage of standing up for one's beliefs in the face of public condemnation.
Lee won numerous awards for To Kill a Mockingbird in addition to the Pulitzer Prize: the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1961), the Alabama Library Association Award (1961), Bestsellers Paperback of the Year Award (1962), and additional designations such as a Literary Guild selection, a Reader's Digest condensed book selection, and an alternate for the Book of the Month Club.
The film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, released in 1962, underscored the success of the novel with its own success. Adapted by screenwriter Horton Foote and directed by Robert Mulligan, the film stars Gregory Peck as Atticus and two Alabamians?Mary Badham and Phillip Alford?as Scout and Jem. Both Peck and Foote took home Academy Awards for their work, as did art director Henry Bumstead.
Both the novel and film versions of To Kill a Mockingbird continue to hold the public's interest. An increasing number of scholars write about the novel, analyzing its moral, sociological, psychological, literary, legal, and racial and gender issues and themes. Students in schools and colleges worldwide study the novel. Large cities adopt it as the book to be read by all citizens. To Kill a Mockingbird has now sold nearly 50 million copies and been translated into more than 40 languages. As she said she desired, Harper Lee left a "record" of the "rich social pattern" of small-town American life.
Harper Lee published several short pieces in the early 1960s, including essays in McCall's and Vogue and a lively analysis of the literary qualities of A. J. Pickett's History of Alabama, which she originally presented at the Eufaula History and Heritage Festival in 1983 and published in 1985. But afterward, decades passed without any further literary output from Lee. In interviews after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee claimed she was working on another novel, but over time she said that the one novel had taken enough of her life and the lives of her family. A second novel would have to be published posthumously. In July 2006, Lee finally responded to a repeated request from media magnate Oprah Winfrey to write for O, The Oprah Magazine, writing her a letter about how she learned to read, a selection that echoes Scout?s learning to read in her father?s lap. In 2007 Lee suffered a stroke and moved from New York to an assisted living residence in her hometown of Monroeville.
On February 3, 2015, HarperCollins issued a surprising press release announcing the publication of a second novel, Go Set a Watchman. As the media continued to cover the unexpected news, readers learned that the forthcoming novel was not a "second" novel but rather an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the 1950s, after her agent, Maurice Crain, and her editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, had read it and made recommendations, Lee rewrote it to focus on the children, seen in flashbacks in the novel. The rewriting resulted in the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. In July 2015, Go Set a Watchman was published unrevised, as originally submitted. The plots of the two novels are related in that Watchmanis set in 1956 and tells the story of the grown Jean Louise returning to her home town of Maycomb, Alabama, for her summer visit from New York City, where she lives and works.
The news sparked a whirlwind of controversies. Media figures and others questioned whether Lee wanted the book published and if she had the mental capacity to give permission. Anonymous sources even reported to the Alabama Adult Protective Services Division that she was the victim of elder abuse and financial fraud. The state found no evidence of either, and members of the family and close friends reported that she was supportive of, and excited about, the decision to publish the earlier novel.
Go Set a Watchman was released on July 13, 2015 and was an immediate bestseller, selling 720,000 copies in the first 36 hours of sales. The reviews were mixed, however, with many people failing to note that it was an unrevised early draft of the successful To Kill a Mockingbird. A more complex, and somewhat negative, depiction of Atticus Finch further fueled controversy among critics, scholars, and readers.
On February 10, 2016, a press release announced that Aaron Sorkin is writing a new adaption of To Kill a Mockingbird. Scott Rudin will produce the play, and Bartlett Sher will direct. It is scheduled for the Broadway 2017-2018 season.
Lee was widely recognized throughout her life for her contributions to literature, culture, and the humanities. In 2002, Lee received the Alabama Humanities Award from the Alabama Humanities Foundation. In May 2007, Harper Lee was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is considered the nation's highest formal recognition of artistic merit; she also was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contribution to literature. In March 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lee?along with other artists such as Meryl Streep, James Taylor, and Quincy Jones?the 2010 National Medal of Arts for her "outstanding contribution to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts."
Harper Lee died on February 19, 2016, in her hometown of Monroeville and was buried in Hillcrest Cemetery.
Works by Harper Lee
"Dewey Had Important Part in Solving Brutal Murders." The Grapevine Magazine (1960)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
"Christmas to Me." McCall's (1961)
"Love?In Other Words," Vogue (1961)
"When Children Discover America," McCall's (1965)
"Truman Capote" Book-of-the-Month Club News (1966)
"Romance and High Adventure," Clearings in the Thicket: An Alabama Humanities Reader (1985)
Go Set a Watchman (2015)
Additional Resources
Bloom, Harold, ed. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Contemporary Literary Views Series. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.
Godfree, Elizabeth C., ed. "Special Issue: Symposium on To Kill a Mockingbird." Alabama Law Review 45 (Winter 1994): 389?727.
Johnson, Claudia Durst. To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries. Twayne's Masterwork Studies Series, no. 139. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
/>———. Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents. "Literature in Context" Series. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Madden, Kerry. Harper Lee: A Twentieth-Century Life. New York: Viking, 2009.
Meyer, Michael J., ed. Harper Lee?s To Kill a Mockingbird: New Essays. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2010.
Noble, Donald, ed. Critical Insights: To Kill a Mockingbird. Ipswich, N.J.: Salem Press, 2009.
Petry, Alice Hall, ed. On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007.
Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. New York: Henry Holt, 2006; revised ed., 2016.
Published:  March 19, 2007   |   Last updated:  November 17, 2016