gigatos | June 8, 2022
Nell Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was an American writer, author of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).
The Beginning of Life
Nell Harper Lee was born April 28, 1926, in the small town of Monroeville in southwest Alabama. She was the youngest child of Amas Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee (there were four children in all). Her father, a former newspaper owner and editor, was a lawyer and was in public service from 1926 to 1938. As a child, Lee was a tomboy and started reading early. She was friends with a classmate and neighbor, a young Truman Capote.
Lee was only five years old when, in April 1931, in the small town of Scottsboro, Alabama, the first trials were held for the alleged rapes of two white women by nine young black men. The defendants, who had been nearly lynched before the trial even took place, were not provided legal counsel until after the trial began. Despite a medical report stating that the women had not been raped, the jury, which consisted only of white men, convicted and sentenced to death all but the youngest, a thirteen-year-old defendant. Over the next six years, in an appellate trial, most of these charges were dismissed and all but one of the defendants were released. The Scottsboro case left a lasting impression on the young Harper Lee, who many years later uses it as the basis for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
After graduating from Monroeville High School, Lee attended Huntingdon College for Women in Montgomery (1944-1945), studied law at the University of Alabama (1945-1949), and joined the Chi Omega (Chi Omega) fraternity for women students. During this time she published several student short stories and was editor of the humorous magazine Remmer-Jammer for about a year. She spent a year at Oxford University as an exchange student, planning to work in her father”s law firm in the future. Six months before graduation, she left her studies and moved to New York, dreaming of becoming a professional writer. Up until the late 1950s, she made her living as a ticket sales clerk for Eastern Air Lines and BOAC. She led a modest life, living in a small apartment in New York City and occasionally returning to her parents” home.
“To Kill a Mockingbird
After writing several short stories, Harper Lee found a literary agent in November 1956. In December she received a letter from friends Michael Brown and Joy Williams Brown, which included the gift of a year”s paid vacation. The friends wrote, “You have one year off to write whatever you want. Merry Christmas.” A year later a draft of the novel was ready. Working with J.B. Lippincott, editor of Tay Hohoff, she finished To Kill a Mockingbird in the summer of 1959. The novel was published on July 11, 1960, and became a bestseller and received critical acclaim, including the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction; it is on the list of outstanding works of American literature. In 1999 the book was named “best American novel of the century” by Library Journal (USA). The world circulation of the novel exceeds 40 million .
The success of the book came as a surprise to Harper Lee herself:
“I never expected any success with Mockingbird. I hoped for a quick and merciful death in the hands of the critics, but at the same time I wondered if anyone would like it enough to give me the courage to keep writing. I hoped for little, but I got everything, and that, in some ways, was as frightening as a quick merciful death.”
There is an opinion that the success of the novel is due to the fact that its publication coincided with the beginning of the civil rights movement in the United States.
In a rare interview (1961), Lee reported that the plot of the novel was complete fiction and had nothing to do with the story of her own “boring” childhood.
After To Kill a Mockingbird
After writing To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee went with Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to help him research the small-town reaction to the murder of a farmer and his family there. The result of the work was to be an article. Capote built his best-selling novel, Cold-Blooded Murder (1966), on this material. Two different films, Capote (2005) and Notorious (2006), were based on the events that occurred in that town with Capote and Lee.
Since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Leigh had given virtually no interviews, had not participated in public life, and, except for a few short essays, had not written anything else. She was working on her second novel, which did not see the light of day until July 2015, less than a year before Lee”s death. In the mid-1980s she began work on a documentary book about an Alabama serial killer, but interrupted work on it because she was not satisfied with its results.
Regarding the screenplay written by Horton Foote based on her book (the film won an Oscar in 1962), Lee said: “If the merit of any screen adaptation can be measured by the level of conveyance of the writer”s intent, then the adaptation made by Mr. Foote should be studied as a classic example of such an adaptation.” Harper Lee became a close friend of Gregory Peck, movie star and performer of the role of Jean”s father, Atticus Finch. That role won Gregory Peck an Oscar in 1963. She remained a close friend of the actor”s family. Peck”s grandson, Harper Peck Wall, was named after the writer.
In June 1966 Lee was one of two people appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the National Council of the Arts. The writer attended the 1983 Alabama History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula, Alabama, with her essay “Novel and Adventure.
Lee spent her time between her apartment in New York and her sister”s home in Monroeville. She accepted honorary positions, but refused to make public appearances. In March 2005 she came to Amrak, her first since her appearance there with publisher Lippincott in 1960, when she received an ATTY award from the Spector Gadon and Rosen Foundation for her portrayal of lawyers in fiction.
In 2005 Lee, initiated by Gregory Peck”s widow Veronique, travels by train from Monroeville to Los Angeles to receive an award from the Los Angeles Public Library for achievement in literature. She also attends annual holiday luncheons for students who have written essays based on her work at the University of Alabama. On May 21, 2006, she received an honorary degree from the University of Notterdam. As a sign of respect, graduates of the university held “To Kill a Mockingbird” in their hands during the celebration.
She continued to live in New York and Monroeville, where she led a relatively isolated life, rarely giving interviews or speaking in public. She published only a few short essays in popular literary publications.
Lee”s retreat from public life generated persistent but unsubstantiated speculation about the continuation of her literary activities. The same speculation haunted American writers Jerome David Salinger and Ralph Ellison.
In Oprah Winfrey”s “About” magazine (May 2006), Lee wrote about her early love of books and attitude toward literature, “Now, 75 years later, in an affluent society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and empty heads, I still prefer books.”
On August 20, 2007, at a ceremony to induct four new members into the Alabama Honor Academy, Lee declined to give a speech, saying: “…better to be silent than stupid.”
In November 2007, Lee suffered a stroke, after which she was forced to live in a nursing home. Her older sister Alice, who had been in charge of her affairs throughout her life, passed away in 2014 at the age of 104, after which Lee had little contact with the outside world.
In 2015 Harper Books published Go Set a Watchman (a quote from the Book of Isaiah 21:6), which was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but was not published in its time. Critics believe, however, that it does not appear to be a stand-alone novel, but only the original version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which they are now trying to present as a separate novel. It is very likely that Go Set a Watchman was published solely for commercial purposes, by Tonya Carter, the elderly writer”s legal advisor, without Lee”s knowledge. The version that the novel was allegedly accidentally found in Lee”s archives does not stand up to scrutiny, since Lee is extremely difficult to suspect that she once wrote a publishable book and completely forgot about it for many decades. After Alice”s death, Tonya Carter, took complete control of all of Lee”s contacts, which was not very difficult in view of the writer”s withdrawn nature and her physical condition, Lee at the time virtually deaf and blind and living in a special institution.
Harper Lee died in her sleep on the morning of February 19, 2016, in her 90th year. She lived in Monroeville, Alabama, until her death. Harper Lee was never married and had no children.
Catherine Keener played Lee in Capote (2005), Sandra Bullock in Dirty Glory (2006), Tracy Hoyt in the TV movie Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susan Story (1998). In the adaptation of the novel Other Voices, Other Rooms (1995), the character Idabel Tompkins (Aubrey Dollar) is inspired by Truman Capote”s memories of Harper Lee”s childhood.