Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016), better known by her pen name Harper Lee, was an American novelist widely known for To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. Immediately successful, it won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and has become a classic of modern American literature. Though Lee had only published this single book, in 2007 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature. Additionally, Lee received numerous honorary degrees, though she declined to speak on those occasions. She was also known for assisting her close friend Truman Capote in his research for the book In Cold Blood (1966). Capote was the basis for the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The plot and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird are loosely based on Lee’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old. The novel deals with the irrationality of adult attitudes towards race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s, as depicted through the eyes of two children. The novel was inspired by racist attitudes in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
Another novel, Go Set a Watchman, was written in the mid-1950s and published in July 2015 as a “sequel”, though it was later confirmed to be To Kill a Mockingbird’s first draft.
Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama where she grew up as the youngest of four children of Frances Cunningham (Finch) and Amasa Coleman Lee. Her parents chose her middle name, Harper, to honor pediatrician Dr. William W. Harper, of Selma, Alabama, who saved the life of her sister Louise. Her first name, Nelle, was her grandmother’s name spelled backwards and the name she used; Harper Lee being primarily her pen name. Lee’s mother was a homemaker; her father, a former newspaper editor and proprietor, practiced law and served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. Before A.C. Lee became a title lawyer, he once defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Both clients, a father and son, were hanged. Lee had three siblings: Alice Finch Lee (1911–2014), Louise Lee Conner (1916–2009), and Edwin Lee (1920–1951).
While enrolled at Monroe County High School, Lee developed an interest in English literature. After graduating from high school in 1944, she attended the then all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery for a year, then transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she studied law for several years and wrote for the university newspaper, but did not complete a degree. In the summer of 1948, Lee attended a summer school in European civilization at Oxford University in England, financed by her father, who hoped – in vain, as it turned out – that the experience would make her more interested in her legal studies in Tuscaloosa.
To Kill a Mockingbird
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, 1964
In 1949, Lee moved to New York City and took a job as an airline reservation agent, writing fiction in her spare time. Having written several long stories, Lee found an agent in November 1956. The following month, at Michael Brown’s East 50th Street townhouse, she received a gift of a year’s wages from friends with a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
In the spring of 1957, a 31-year-old Lee delivered the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman to her agent to send out to publishers, including the now-defunct J. B. Lippincott Company, which eventually bought it. At Lippincott, the novel fell into the hands of Therese von Hohoff Torrey—known professionally as Tay Hohoff. Hohoff was impressed. “he spark of the true writer flashed in every line”, she would later recount in a corporate history of Lippincott. But as Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”. During the next couple of years, she led Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled To Kill a Mockingbird.
Like many unpublished authors, Lee was unsure of her talents. “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” Lee said in a statement in 2015 about the evolution from Watchman to Mockingbird. Hohoff offers a more detailed characterization of the process in the Lippincott corporate history: “After a couple of false starts, the story-line, interplay of characters, and fall of emphasis grew clearer, and with each revision — there were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in her own vision of it — the true stature of the novel became evident.” (In 1978, Lippincott was acquired by Harper & Row, which became HarperCollins, publisher of Watchman.)
There appeared to be a natural give and take between author and editor. “When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours,” Hohoff wrote. “And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of country.”
As for her relationship with Lee, it’s clear that Hohoff provided more than just editorial guidance. One winter night, as Charles J. Shields recounts in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Lee threw her manuscript out her window and into the snow, before calling Hohoff in tears. “Tay told her to march outside immediately and pick up the pages,” Mr. Shields writes.
When the novel was finally ready, the author opted to use the name “Harper Lee”, rather than risk having her first name Nelle be misidentified as “Nellie”.
Published July 11, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird 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.
Autobiographical details in the novel
Like Lee, the tomboy Scout of the novel is the daughter of a respected small-town Alabama attorney. Scout’s friend, Dill, was inspired by Lee’s childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote; Lee, in turn, is the model for a character in Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948. Although the plot of Lee’s novel involves an unsuccessful legal defense similar to one undertaken by her attorney father, the 1931 landmark Scottsboro Boys interracial rape case may also have helped to shape Lee’s social conscience.
While Lee herself downplayed autobiographical parallels in the book, Truman Capote, mentioning the character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, described details he considered autobiographical: “In my original version of Other Voices, Other Rooms I had that same man living in the house that used to leave things in the trees, and then I took that out. He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true. But you see, I take the same thing and transfer it into some Gothic dream, done in an entirely different way.”
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, published in 1966.
From the time of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird until her death in 2016, Lee granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances and, with the exception of a few short essays, published nothing further, until 2015. She did work on a follow-up novel—The Long Goodbye—but eventually filed it away unfinished. During the mid-1980s, she began a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer, but also put it aside when she was not satisfied. Her withdrawal from public life prompted unfounded speculation that new publications were in the works.
Lee said of the 1962 Academy Award–winning screenplay adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird by Horton Foote: “I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made.” She became a friend of Gregory Peck, and after his death remained close to the actor’s family; Peck’s grandson, Harper Peck Voll, is named after her.
Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, the father of the novel’s narrator, Scout.
In January 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Lee to the National Council on the Arts.
In 1966, Lee wrote a letter to the editor in response to the attempts of a Richmond, Virginia, area school board to ban To Kill a Mockingbird as “immoral literature”:
James J. Kilpatrick, the editor of The Richmond News Leader, started the Beadle Bumble fund to pay fines for victims of what he termed “despots on the bench”. He built the fund using contributions from readers, and later used it to defend books as well as people. After the board in Richmond ordered schools to dispose of all copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, Kilpatrick wrote, “A more moral novel scarcely could be imagined.” In the name of the Beadle Bumble fund, he then offered free copies to children who wrote in, and by the end of the first week, he had given away 81 copies.
When Lee attended the 1983 Alabama History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula, Alabama, she presented the essay “Romance and High Adventure”.
Late in 1978, Lee spent some time in Alexander City, Alabama, researching a true-crime book called The Reverend.
Lee lived for 40 years at 433 East 82nd Street in Manhattan.
In March 2005, Lee 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 Peck, 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 have written essays based on her work, held annually at the University of Alabama. On May 21, 2006, she accepted an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, where graduating seniors saluted her with copies of To Kill a Mockingbird during the ceremony.
On May 7, 2006, Lee wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey (published in O, The Oprah Magazine in July 2006) 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, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.”
While attending an August 20, 2007, ceremony inducting four members into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Lee declined an invitation to address the audience, saying: “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”
On November 5, 2007, George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This 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”.
In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Lee the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given by the United States government for “outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts”.
In a 2011 interview with an Australian newspaper, Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts said Lee now lived in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair-bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss. Butts also shared that Lee told him why she never wrote again: “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
On May 3, 2013, Lee had filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court to regain the copyright to To Kill a Mockingbird, seeking unspecified damages from a son-in-law of her former literary agent and related entities. Lee claimed that the man “engaged in a scheme to dupe” her into assigning him the copyright on the book in 2007, when her hearing and eyesight were in decline, and she was residing in an assisted-living facility after having suffered a stroke. In September 2013, attorneys for both sides announced a settlement of the lawsuit.
In February 2014, Lee settled a lawsuit against the Monroe County Heritage Museum for an undisclosed amount. The suit alleged that the museum had used her name and the title To Kill a Mockingbird to promote itself and to sell souvenirs without her consent. Lee’s attorneys had filed a trademark application on August 19, 2013, to which the museum filed an opposition. This prompted Lee’s attorney to file a lawsuit on October 15 that same year, “which takes issue the museum’s website and gift shop, which it accuses of ‘palming off its goods’, including T-shirts, coffee mugs other various trinkets with Mockingbird brands.”
According to Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter, following an initial meeting to appraise Lee’s assets in 2011, she re-examined Lee’s safe-deposit box in 2014 and found the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman. After contacting Lee and reading the manuscript, she passed it on to Lee’s agent Andrew Nurnberg.
On February 3, 2015, it was announced that HarperCollins would publish Go Set a Watchman, which includes versions of many of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. According to a HarperCollins press release, it was originally thought that the Watchman manuscript was lost. According to Nurnberg, Mockingbird was originally intended to be the first book of a trilogy: “They discussed publishing Mockingbird first, Watchman last, and a shorter connecting novel between the two.”
Jonathan Mahler’s account in The New York Times of how Watchman was only ever really considered to be the first draft of Mockingbird makes this assertion seem unlikely. Evidence where the same passages exist in both books, in many cases word for word, also further refutes this assertion.
The book was controversially published in July 2015 as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, though it has been confirmed to be the first draft of the latter, with many narrative incongruities, repackaged and released as a completely separate work. The book is set some 20 years after the time period depicted in Mockingbird, when Scout returns as an adult from New York to visit her father in Maycomb, Alabama. It alludes to Scout’s view of her father, Atticus Finch, as the moral compass (“watchman”) of Maycomb, and, according to the publisher, how she finds upon her return to Maycomb, that she “is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.”
Not all reviewers have such a harsh opinion about the publication of the sequel book. Michiko Kakutani in Books of The Times article finds that the book “makes for disturbing reading” when Scout is shocked to find… that her beloved father… has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion… Though it lacks the lyricism… the portions of “Watchman” dealing with Scout’s childhood and her adult romance with Henry capture the daily rhythms of life in a small town and are peppered with portraits of minor characters” and she mentions that “Students of writing will find “Watchman” fascinating.” While not fully praising the book she finds the publication of “Watchman” an important step stone in understanding Harper Lee’s work.
The publication of the novel (announced by her lawyer) raised concerns over why Lee, who for 55 years had maintained that she would never write another book, would suddenly choose to publish again. In February 2015, the State of Alabama, through its Human Resources Department, launched an investigation into whether Lee was competent enough to consent to the publishing of Go Set a Watchman. The investigation found that the claims of coercion and elder abuse were unfounded, and, according to Lee’s lawyer, Lee was “happy as hell” with the publication.
This characterization, however, was contested by many of Lee’s friends. Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, a friend and former neighbor, painted a very different picture. In her piece for The Washington Post, “The Harper Lee I knew”, she quoted Alice—Lee’s sister, whom she described as “gatekeeper, advisor, protector” for most of Lee’s adult life—as saying, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” She made note that Watchman was announced just two and a half months after Alice’s death and that all correspondence to and from Lee went through her new attorney. She described Lee as “in a wheelchair in an assisted living center, nearly deaf and blind, with a uniformed guard posted at the door” and her visitors “restricted to those on an approved list.”
New York Times columnist Joe Nocera continued this argument. He also took issue with how the book was promoted by the ‘Murdoch Empire’ as a “newly discovered” novel, attesting that the other people in the Sothebys meeting insisted that Lee’s attorney was present in 2011, when Lee’s former agent (who was subsequently fired) and the Sotheby’s specialist found the manuscript. They said she knew full well that it was the same one submitted to Tay Hohoff in the 1950s that was reworked into Mockingbird, and that Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter had been sitting on the discovery, waiting for the moment when she, and not Alice, would be in charge of Harper Lee’s affairs.
Stephen Peck, son of actor Gregory Peck, also expressed concern. Responding to the question of how he thought his father would have reacted to the book, he said that he “would have appreciated the discussion the book has prompted, but would have been troubled by the decision to publish it.” Peck noted that his father considered Lee a dear friend. She gave him the pocket watch that had belonged to her father, on whom she modeled Atticus and that Gregory wore it the night he won an Oscar for the role. Stephen, who is president and chief executive of the United States Veterans Initiative, went on to say “I think he would have felt very protective of her,” and that his father would have counseled Lee not to publish Watchman because it could taint Mockingbird, one of the most beloved novels (in) American history.
“Not to protect himself, but to protect her,” Peck said, also noting that the decision to publish it was made not long after the death of Alice Lee, who had long handled Harper Lee’s affairs. “You just don’t know how that decision was made… If he had to, he would have flown down to talk to her. I have no doubt.” Later in the article, which was posted in The Wall Street Journal, he said, “To me, it was an unedited draft. Do you want to put that early version out there or do you want to put it in the University of Alabama archives for scholars to look at?”
Lee died in her sleep on the morning of February 19, 2016, aged 89. Prior to her death, she lived in Monroeville, Alabama. On February 20, her funeral was held at First United Methodist Church in Monroeville. The service was attended by close family and friends, and the eulogy was given by Wayne Flynt.
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