Harper Lee (right) with producer Alan J. Pakula in a 1962 publicity photo for the film of To Kill a Mockingbird
|Born:||April 28, 1926 (1926-04-28) |
|Literary movement:||Southern Gothic|
|Influences:||Truman Capote, William Faulkner|
Nelle Harper Lee (born April 28, 1926) is an American novelist known for her Pulitzer Prize–winning 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, her only major work to date.
Nelle Harper Lee was born in the small southwestern Alabama town of Monroeville on April 28, 1926, the youngest of four children born to Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. Her father, a former newspaper editor and proprietor, was a lawyer who also served on the state legislature from 1926 to 1938. As a child, Lee was a tomboy and a precocious reader, and enjoyed the friendship of her schoolmate and neighbor, the young Truman Capote.
Lee was only five years old when, in April 1931 in the small Alabama town of Scottsboro, the first trials began surrounding the purported rapes of two white women by nine young black men. The defendants, who were nearly lynched before being brought to court, were not provided with the services of a lawyer until the first day of trial. Despite medical testimony that the women had not been raped, the all-white jury found the men guilty of the crime and sentenced all but the youngest, a thirteen-year-old, to death. Six years of subsequent trials saw most of these convictions repealed, and all but one of the men freed or paroled. The Scottsboro case left a deep impression on the young Lee, who would use it later as the rough basis for the events in To Kill a Mockingbird.
After graduating from high school in Weymouth, Lee enrolled first at the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery (1944-45), and then pursued a law degree at the University of Alabama (1945-49), pledging the Chi Omega sorority. While there, she wrote for several student publications and spent a year as editor of the campus humor magazine, Rammer-Jammer. Though she did not complete the requirements for a law degree, she pursued studies for a summer in Oxford, England, before moving to New York in 1950, where she worked as a reservation clerk with Eastern Air Lines and BOAC in New York City.
Lee continued working as a reservation clerk until the late 50s, when she resolved to devote herself to writing. She lived a frugal lifestyle, traveling between her cold-water-only apartment in New York to her family home in Alabama to care for her ailing father.
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." Within a year, she had a first draft. Working closely with J.B. Lippincott editor Tay Hohoff, she completed To Kill a Mockingbird in the summer of 1959. Published July 11, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate bestseller and won her great critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. It remains a bestseller today, with over 30 million copies in print, and has earned a secure place in the canon of American literature. In 1999, it was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a poll conducted by the Library Journal.
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
President Johnson named Lee to the National Council of Arts in June 1966, and since then she has received numerous honorary doctorates. She continues to live in New York and Monroeville, but prefers a relatively private existence, granting few interviews and giving few speeches. She has published only a few short essays in popular magazines since her literary debut. Her universal success is acknowledged both by readers and by critics.
Many details of To Kill a Mockingbird are apparently autobiographical. Like Lee, the tomboy Scout is the daughter of a respected small town Alabama attorney. The plot involves a legal case, the workings of which would have been familiar to Lee, who studied law. Scout's friend Dill is commonly supposed to have been inspired by Lee's childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote, while Lee is the model for a character in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Though Lee has downplayed autobiographical parallels, biographer Charles Shields cites them as evidence against the persistent theory that Capote wrote all or part of To Kill a Mockingbird, a rumor which Capote himself occasionally allowed to pass without comment but dismissed at other times. Mentioning the character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote described the differences in his and Lee's writing styles: "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." (William Nance, The Worlds of Truman Capote. New York: Stein & Day, 1970, p. 223.)
Citing Lee's failure to produce another novel, at least one notable critic, Harper's editor Pearl Kazin Bell, has gone on record supporting the theory of Capote's co-authorship. The most compelling evidence against the theory, however, is a contemporary letter from Capote to his aunt, dated July 9, 1959. In it he indicates that he had seen Lee's manuscript but did not take any credit for it.
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 the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee has granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances, and with the exception of a few short essays, has published no further writings. She did work on a second novel for years, eventually filing it away unpublished. During the mid-1980s, she began writing a book of nonfiction about an Alabama serial murderer, but she put it aside when she was not satisfied with the result.
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 close friend of the late star 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 of Arts.
When Lee attended the 1983 Alabama History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula, Alabama, she presented the essay "Romance and High Adventure."
Lee has been known to split time between an apartment in New York and her sister's home in Monroeville. She has accepted honorary degrees but has declined to make speeches. In March 2005, she arrived via Amtrak 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 has 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. To honor her, the graduating seniors were given copies of Mockingbird before the ceremony and held them up when she received her degree.
Her withdrawal from public life has prompted persistent but unfounded speculation that new publications are in the works. Similar speculation has followed the American writers J. D. Salinger and Ralph Ellison.
In a letter published in Oprah Winfrey's magazine O (May 2006), Lee wrote about her early love of books as a child and her steadfast 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."
While attending an August 20, 2007 ceremony inducting four new members into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Lee responded to an invitation to address the audience with ...it's better to be silent than to be a fool.
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 (Aubrey Dollar) is inspired by Truman Capote's memories of Harper Lee as a child.