Harper Lee

From New World Encyclopedia

Harper Lee
Photo portrait of Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird dust jacket, 1960).jpg
Harper Lee
Born April 28 1926(1926-04-28)
Monroeville, Alabama
Died February 19 2016 (aged 89)
Monroeville, Alabama
Occupation Novelist
Nationality American
Subjects Literature
Literary movement Southern Gothic
Influences Truman Capote, William Faulkner
Influenced David Guterson

Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 - February 19, 2016) was an American novelist known for her Pulitzer Prize–winning 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel is renowned for its warmth and humor, despite dealing with the serious issues of rape and racial inequality. The narrator's father, Atticus Finch, has served as a moral hero for many readers, and a model of integrity for lawyers. One critic explained the novel's impact by writing, "[i]n the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism."[1]

As a Southern Gothic novel and a bildungsroman, the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird involve racial injustice and the destruction of innocence, but scholars have also noted that Lee addresses the issues of class tensions, courage, and compassion, and gender roles in the American Deep South. The book is widely taught in schools in English-speaking countries with lessons that emphasize tolerance and decry prejudice. Despite its themes, To Kill a Mockingbird has been the target of various campaigns to have it removed from public classrooms. Often the book is challenged for its use of racial epithets, and writers have noticed that although white readers react favorably to the novel, black readers tend to respond less positively.

Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom of United States for her contributions to literature in 2007.[2]


Early life

Harper Lee, known as Nelle, was born in the Alabama town of Monroeville, on April 28 1926, the youngest of four children of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. Her father, a former newspaper editor and proprietor, was a lawyer who served on the state legislature from 1926 to 1938. As a child, Lee was a tomboy and a precocious reader. Among her childhood friends was her schoolmate and neighbor, the young Truman Capote.

After graduating from high school in Monroeville,[3] Lee enrolled at the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery (1944-45), and then pursued a law degree at the University of Alabama (1945-50), pledging the Chi Omega sorority. While attending college, she wrote for campus literary magazines: Huntress at Huntingdon and the humor magazine, Rammer Jammer, at the University of Alabama. At both schools, she wrote short stories and other works about racial injustice, a rarely mentioned topic on these campuses at the time.[4] Though she did not complete the law degree, she studied for a summer in Oxford, England. In 1950, she moved to New York City, where she worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Air Lines and British Overseas Airways Corporation; there, she began writing a collection of essays and short stories about people in Monroeville. Hoping to be published, Lee presented her writing in 1957, to a literary agent recommended by Capote. An editor at J. B. Lippincott advised her to quit the airline and concentrate on writing. Donations from friends allowed her to write uninterrupted for a year.[5] She lived a frugal life, traveling between her cold-water-only apartment in New York to her family home in Alabama to care for her father.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Having written several long stories, Harper Lee located an agent in November 1956. The following month at the East 50th townhouse of her friends Michael Brown and Joy Williams Brown, she received a gift of a year's wages with a note: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas."[6] Within a year, she had a first draft. Working with J.B. Lippincott & Co. editor Tay Hohoff, she completed To Kill a Mockingbird in the summer of 1959. Lee spent two and a half years writing To Kill a Mockingbird. A description of the book's creation by the National Endowment for the Arts relates an episode wherein Lee became so frustrated that she tossed the manuscript out the window into the snow. Her agent made her retrieve it from the street. The book was published on July 11, 1960. It was initially titled Atticus, but Lee retitled the novel to reflect a story that went beyond a character portrait.[7] The editorial team at Lippincott warned Lee that she would probably sell only several thousand copies at the most.[8] In 1964, Lee recalled her hopes for the book when she said, "I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. … I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected." Instead of a "quick and merciful death," the book was republished in part by Reader's Digest Condensed Books, which gave it a wide readership immediately.[9] It was an immediate bestseller and won great critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. It remains a bestseller with more than 30 million copies in print. In 1999, it was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a poll by the Library Journal. Since its publication, it has never been out of print.

I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected (Harper Lee, quoted in Newquist).[10]

Lee's novel was initially reviewed by at least 30 newspapers and magazines, which varied widely in their assessment of it. More recently, it has been ranked by librarians before the Bible as a book "every adult should read before they die".[11] The book was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962 by director Robert Mulligan, with a screenplay by Horton Foote. Since 1990, a play based on the novel has been performed annually in Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, transforming the town into a tourist destination. To date, it is Lee's only published novel, and although she continues to respond to the book's impact, she has refused any personal publicity for herself or the novel since 1964.

Plot summary

The story takes place during three years of the Great Depression in the fictional "tired old town" of Maycomb, Alabama. The narrator, six-year-old Scout Finch, lives with her older brother, Jem, and their widowed father, Atticus, a middle-aged lawyer. Jem and Scout befriend a boy named Dill who visits Maycomb to stay with his aunt for the summer. The three children are terrified by, and fascinated with, their neighbor, the reclusive "Boo" Radley. The adults of Maycomb are hesitant to talk about Boo and for many years, few have seen him. The children feed each other's imaginations with rampant rumors about his grotesque appearance and his reasons for remaining hidden, and they dream of ways to get him to come out of his house. Following two summers of friendship with Dill, Scout, and Jem find that someone is leaving them small gifts in a tree outside the Radley place. Several times, the mysterious Boo makes gestures of affection to the children, but, to their disappointment, never appears in person.

Atticus is assigned to defend a black man named Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman. Although many of Maycomb's citizens disapprove, Atticus agrees to defend Tom to the best of his ability. Scout is subjected to other children taunting Atticus, calling him a "nigger-lover," and she is tempted to stand up for her father's honor by fighting, even though he has told her not to. For his part, Atticus faces a group of men intent on lynching Tom, but this danger is averted when Scout, Jem, and Dill shame the mob into dispersing by forcing them to view the situation from Atticus' and Tom's points of view.

Because Atticus does not want them to be present at Tom Robinson's trial, Scout, Jem, and Dill watch in secret from the colored balcony. Atticus establishes that the accusers—Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell, the town drunk—are lying. It also becomes clear that the friendless Mayella was making sexual advances towards Tom and that her father caught her in the act. Despite significant evidence of Tom's innocence, he is convicted. Jem's faith in justice is badly shaken, as is Atticus', when a hopeless Tom is shot and killed while trying to escape from prison.

Bob Ewell is humiliated by the trial and vows revenge. He spits in Atticus' face on the street, tries to break into the judge's house, and menaces Tom Robinson's widow. Finally, he attacks the defenseless Jem and Scout as they walk home from a Halloween pageant at their school. Jem's arm is broken in the struggle, but, amid the confusion, someone comes to their rescue. The mysterious man carries Jem home, where Scout eventually recognizes him as the reclusive Boo Radley.

Maycomb's sheriff arrives and discovers that Bob Ewell has been killed. The sheriff argues with Atticus about the prudence and ethics of holding Jem or Boo responsible. Atticus eventually accepts the sheriff's story that Ewell simply fell on his own knife. Boo asks Scout to walk him home, and after she says goodbye to him at his front door, he disappears again. While standing on the Radley porch, Scout imagines life from Boo's perspective and regrets that they never repaid him for the gifts he had given them.

Autobiographical elements

Lee has said that To Kill a Mockingbird is not an autobiography, but rather an example of how an author "should write about what he knows and write truthfully".[12] Nevertheless, several people and events from Lee's childhood parallel those of the fictional Scout. Lee's father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was an attorney, similar to Atticus Finch, and in 1919, he defended two black men accused of murder. After they were convicted, hanged, and mutilated,[13] he never tried another criminal case. Lee's father was also the editor and publisher of the Monroeville newspaper; although more conservative than Atticus with regard to race, he gradually became more liberal in his later years.[14] Though Scout's mother died when she was a baby, and Lee was 25 when her mother died, her mother was prone to a nervous condition that rendered her mentally and emotionally absent.[15] Lee also had a brother named Edwin, who—like the fictional Jem—was four years older than his sister. As in the novel, a black housekeeper came once a day to care for the Lee house and family.

The character of Dill was modeled on Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote, known then as Truman Persons.[16] Just as Dill lived next door to Scout during the summer, Capote lived next door to Lee with his aunts while his mother visited New York City.[17] Like Dill, Capote had an impressive imagination and a gift for fascinating stories. Both Lee and Capote were atypical children: Both loved to read, and whereas Lee was a scrappy tomboy who was quick to fight, Capote was the object of ridicule for his advanced vocabulary and lisp. She and Capote made up and acted out stories they wrote on an old Underwood typewriter Lee's father gave them. They became very good friends when both felt alienated from their peers; Capote called the two of them "apart people."[18] In 1960, Capote and Lee traveled to Kansas together to investigate the multiple murder that was the basis of Capote's nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood.

After To Kill a Mockingbird

After completing To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee accompanied Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to assist him in researching what they thought would be an article on a small town's response to the murder of a farmer and his family. Capote expanded the material into his best-selling book, In Cold Blood (1966). The experiences of Capote and Lee in Holcomb were depicted in two different films, Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006).

Since publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances, and with the exception of a few short essays, published no further writings. She did work on a second novel for years, eventually filing it away, unpublished. During the mid-1980s, she began a book of nonfiction about an Alabama serial murderer, but she put it aside when she was not satisfied. Her withdrawal from public life prompted unfounded speculation that new publications were in the works, such as those which followed the American writers J.D. Salinger and Ralph Ellison.

Lee said of the 1962 Academy Award–winning screenplay adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird by Horton Foote: "If the integrity of a film adaptation can be measured by the degree to which the novelist's intent is preserved, Mr Foote's screenplay should be studied as a classic." She also became a friend of Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, the father of the novel's narrator, Scout. She remains close to the actor's family. Peck's grandson, Harper Peck Voll, is named after her.

In June 1966, Lee was one of two persons named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Council on the Arts.

When Lee attended the 1983 Alabama History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula, Alabama, she presented the essay "Romance and High Adventure."

In a letter published in Oprah Winfrey's magazine, O (May 2006), Lee wrote about her love of books as a child and her dedication to the written word: "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books."[19]

While attending an August 20, 2007, ceremony inducting four members into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Lee responded to an invitation to address the audience with "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool."[20]

Another novel, Go Set a Watchman, was controversially published in July 2015 as a "sequel," though it was later confirmed to be an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee died in her sleep of a stroke on the morning of February 19, 2016, aged 89. Prior to her death, she lived in Monroeville, Alabama.


Lee's single novel was one of the most important literary events in America during the twentieth century.

She accepted honorary degrees but declined to make speeches. In March 2005, she arrived in Philadelphia—her first trip to the city since signing with publisher Lippincott in 1960—to receive the inaugural ATTY Award for positive depictions of attorneys in the arts from the Spector Gadon & Rosen Foundation. At the urging of Peck's widow Veronique, Lee traveled by train from Monroeville to Los Angeles in 2005, to accept the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award. She also attended luncheons for students who had written essays based on her work, held annually at the University of Alabama.[21] On May 21, 2006, she accepted an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame. To honor her, the graduating seniors were given copies of Mockingbird before the ceremony and held them up when she received her degree.

Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient

President George W. Bush presents Harper Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on November 5, 2007.

On November 5, 2007, Lee was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush at a White House Ceremony. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award in the United States and recognizes individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."[22]

Fictional portrayals

Harper Lee was portrayed by Catherine Keener in the film Capote (2005), by Sandra Bullock in the film Infamous (2006), and by Tracey Hoyt in the TV movie Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998). In the adaptation of Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (1995), the character of Idabell Thompkins, who was inspired by Truman Capote's memories of Harper Lee as a child, was played by Aubrey Dollar.


  • Lee, Harper (1960) To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: J. B. Lippincott.
  • Lee, Harper (1961) "Love—In Other Words." Vogue Magazine.
  • Lee, Harper (1961) "Christmas to Me." McCalls Magazine.
  • Lee, Harper (1965) "When Children Discover America." McCalls Magazine.


  1. Joseph Crespino, The Strange Career of Atticus Finch, Southern Cultures 6(2): 9–29.
  2. The White House, President Bush Honors Medal of Freedom Recipients. Retrieved May 28, 2008.
  3. Chicago Public Library, Harper Lee, a brief biography. Retrieved May 28, 2008.
  4. Shields, p. 79–99.
  5. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Nelle Harper Lee. Retrieved May 28, 2008.
  6. NNBD, Harper Lee. Retrieved May 28, 2008.
  7. Shields, p. 129.
  8. Shields, p. 14.
  9. Shields, p. 242.
  10. Roy Newquist (ed.), Counterpoint (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964, ISBN 1-111-80499-0).
  11. Mihelle Pauli, Harper Lee tops librarians' must-read list. Retrieved May 28, 2008.
  12. "Harper Lee," in American Decades (Gale Research, 1998).
  13. Shields, p. 120–121.
  14. Shields, p. 122–125.
  15. Shields, p. 40–41.
  16. Albin Krebs, "Truman Capote Is Dead at 59; Novelist of Style and Clarity," The New York Times, August 26, 1984, p. 1.
  17. Ann Taylor Fleming, "The Private World of Truman Capote," The New York Times Magazine.
  18. Gloria Steinem, Go Right Ahead and Ask Me Anything (And So She Did): An Interview with Truman Capote, McCall's November 1967: p. 76.
  19. "Harper Lee writes item for Oprah’s magazine," MSNBC, June 29, 2006
  20. The Boston Globe, Author has her say. Retrieved May 28, 2008.
  21. Irene Lacher, "Harper Lee raises her low profile for a friend," Los Angeles Times.
  22. The Birmingham News, Harper Lee given Presidential Medal of Freedom. Retrieved May 28, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Petry, Alice Hall. On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007. ISBN 9781572335783.
  • Shields, Charles J. I am Scout: A Biography of Harper Lee. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008. ISBN 9780805083347.
  • Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee. New York: Henry Holt, 2006. ISBN 9780805079197.

External links

All links retrieved August 1, 2017.


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