Harper Lee was an American novelist best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. The book has become a classic of modern American literature.
Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama to Amasa Coleman Lee and Francis Cunningham “Finch” Lee. Finch Lee was a lawyer, and while Lee was a young child he defended two black men who were accused of murdering a white store clerk. He was unsuccessful, as the case was fought in a South under Jim Crow laws and both men were hanged. All public facilities were segregated and a combination of fear and lack of understanding led to most trials involving a black defendant ending in a guilty verdict as the jury was made up of 12 white men.
In 1931, the Scottsboro Boys Trial became a famous example of racial discrimination influencing the decision of a trial, when two women falsely accused nine young black men of rape. Eight were convicted, and spent years in prison before one of the women confessed that she’d fabricated the entire thing. Events like these would have influenced Lee, as did her childhood friend Truman Streckfus Persons, who would later become the inspiration for the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird. He later changed his name, becoming Truman Capote and basing the character of Isabel in his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms on Lee.
Lee had developed an interest in English literature in school, and continued her education at the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery where she was a member of the literary honor society and the glee club. She then transferred to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where she contributed to the school’s newspaper and its magazine, the Rammer Jammer. She later became its editor. Lee spent one year in a program which allowed her to begin to work on a law degree while still an undergraduate. She soon found that writing was her goal, and after a summer as an exchange student at Oxford University, she dropped out.
In 1949, Lee moved to New York City where she began work as an airline reservation agent and resurrected her friendship with Capote. She wrote fiction in her spare time, and in 1956 she received a gift from her friends, the Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Martin Brown and his wife Joy. It contained enough money for her to live for a year and concentrate on her writing. Brown also helped Lee to find an agent. Later that year, Lee accompanied Capote on a trip to interview those affected by the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Lee was able to win over the locals, and would later provide Capote with all of her notes to assist him in his writing of his novel In Cold Blood.
In 1957, Lee handed over the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman to her agent. Publishers saw talent in her writing, but her manuscript was “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel” according to Tay Hohoff at the now-defunct J. B. Lippincott Company. Hohoff and Lee worked on the story for the next few years until it became the version of To Kill a Mockingbird that would later be published. Lee chose to use the pen name Harper Lee, and in 1960 her first novel was published, with a condensed version appearing in Reader’s Digest Magazine. The book became an immediate bestseller, and received great critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The book details events inspired by Lee’s own life, and is set in a small town similar to Monroeville in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. It also gave an insight into the racial prejudices prevalent in the South. In 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted into a film which earned eight Academy Award nominations and winning three.
Lee continued to help Capote on In Cold Blood, but upon its publication he declined to acknowledge her contribution to the work. In 1966, Lee accepted a post to serve on the National Council of the Arts at the request of President Lydon B. Johnson. That same year, she defended her novel when the Richmond, Virginia school board attempted to ban To Kill a Mockingbird on the grounds that it was “immoral literature”. She then retreated from public life for the majority of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and worked on a nonfiction book project entitled The Reverend which was never published. Lee split her time between New York and Monroeville, and was active in her church and community. She would also make anonymous philanthropic donations to charity.
In 2007, Lee was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush for her “outstanding contribution to America’s literary tradition”. In 2010, she was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Barack Obama for “outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts”.
In 2014, her original story Go Set a Watchman was discovered by Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter in a safe deposit box. In February 2015, it was announced that the manuscript would be published. Go Set a Watchman was controversial due to the fact that it changed the way in which the reader viewed Atticus Finch. Whereas in Mockingbird he defends a black man falsely accused of a crime despite the climate of racial prejudice at the time, he was instead painted as a racist with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2016, Lee died at the age of 89. Her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird remains a bestseller, and has been translated into more than 40 languages with more than a million copies sold each year.