Nelle Harper Lee was an American novelist known worldwide as the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, considered one of the greatest books ever written. After her initial attempt to study law, she realized that writing was her true calling and her famous novel was published in 1960. Harper Lee didn’t publish another major work for 55 years till 2015, less than a year before her death, when her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was published under controversial circumstances. Know more about the family, life, education, career and death of Harper Lee through these 10 interesting facts.
#1 Her first name is her grandmother’s name spelled backwards
Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. Her father Amasa Coleman Lee was a lawyer and served as a member of the Alabama House of Representatives from 1927 to 1939. Her mother Frances Cunningham Finch suffered from mental illness, probably bipolar disorder, and rarely left home. She was a homemaker. Harper Lee was the youngest of four children. Her first name, Nelle, is her grandmother’s name spelled backwards.
#2 One of Harper Lee’s closest childhood friends was another famous author Truman Capote
As a child Lee was a tomboy and tougher than many boys. Her friend, schoolmate and neighbor, Truman Capote, was picked by other kids for being a sissy and wearing fancy clothes and Lee often came to his rescue. Lee and Capote shared difficult home lives with Lee’s mother suffering from mental illness and Capote living with his mother’s relatives after largely being abandoned by his own parents. They remained lifelong friends. Capote would go on to write highly acclaimed works like the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and non-fiction crime novel In Cold Blood (1966).
#3 She initially pursued a career in Law
Lee’s interest in English literature grew while she was at Monroe County High School. In 1944, she joined the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery and a year later she enrolled in the University of Alabama, where she studied Law from 1945 to 1949. Lee pursued her literary interest by writing for the humorous school magazine Rammer Jammer and became its editor, but had to leave the position due to pressure of her Law studies. Even though she was studying law, Lee started realizing that writing was her true calling. Hence in 1949 she quit law, dropped out of the university and moved to New York City to pursue a career as a writer.
#4 Michael Brown and his wife helped Harper Lee in focusing on her writing career
In New York, Lee supported herself by working at the reservation desks of Eastern Air Lines and then British Overseas Airways Corporation. She was reunited with her friend Truman Capote, who had become a rising literary star. Through Capote, Lee met music composer and lyricist Michael Brown, and his wife Joy. The Browns gave Lee the gift of a year’s financial support in 1956 with the note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” This gave Lee time to work on her novel. Also, from then on she supported herself as a writer. The Browns also helped her find an agent, Maurice Crain.
#5 Her novel To Kill a Mockingbird has been voted as the best of the century
In 1959, Harper Lee finished the manuscript of her first novel, which was first titled Go Set a Watchman, then Atticus, and later To Kill a Mockingbird. On July 11, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was published by J.B. Lippincott Company. The book was an immediate bestseller and was critically acclaimed. It won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. In 1999, it was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by the Library Journal. In 2006, British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as one “every adult should read before they die”. There are more than 30 million copies of the book in print and it continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year.
#6 There are many parallels between Harper Lee and the fictitious Scout Finch
Though Lee has denied that To Kill a Mockingbird is an autobiography, there are several parallels between Lee and the primary character of the novel, the six-year-old Scout Finch. Like Lee, Scout Finch has a brother who is four years elder to her. Scout’s fictional father Atticus Finch is a respected small-town Alabama attorney just like Lee’s father. In 1919, Amasa Coleman Lee unsuccessfully defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. In the novel, Atticus Finch defends a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. Scout’s friend Dill is inspired by Capote. Capote has even mentioned that the character Boo Radley is based on a real life person. Also, as in the novel, a black housekeeper came daily to care for the Lee house and family.
#7 She called the film adaption of her novel as one of the best
In 1962, the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was released. The film was a box office success and was critically acclaimed. Lee said of the film: “I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made.” The film was won 3 Academy Awards including best adapted screenplay and Gregory Peck winning the best actor award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. Harper Lee and Gregory Peck became friends and she even developed a close relationship with the actor’s family. Peck’s grandson, Harper Peck Voll, was named after her.
#8 She assisted Truman Capote in research for his non-fiction masterpiece In Cold Blood
In 1959, Lee traveled with Truman Capote to Holcomb, Kansas to research about the murder of a wealthy farming family, the Clutters. Together they interviewed friends and family of the deceased, local residents and investigators assigned to the case. They also interviewed the suspected killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith who were later convicted of the murders. Lee and Capote took thousands of pages of notes which assisted Capote in writing the non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. Released in 1966, In Cold Blood became the greatest crime seller of its time.
#9 Her second novel Go Set A Watchmen was published in 2015
After To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee published nothing further for years barring a few short essays. In 2011, her close friend revealed the reason: “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.” However, in 2011, another manuscript by Harper Lee, written in the mid-1950s, was rediscovered in a safe deposit box. This led to the publication of Go Set A Watchmen on July 14, 2015. Though the book was promoted as a sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, it was later widely accepted as being a first draft of the famous novel. The events leading to the release of Go Set A Watchmen were controversial due to the death of Lee’s sister and caregiver Alice Lee; and Harper not being in a state to make sound decisions due to her declining health. However there is no well-founded evidence of Lee being a victim of coercion. The novel was a financial success but many critics considered it an unfinished work which shouldn’t have been published.
#10 In 2011, Harper Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances. She never married and is known for being a recluse. She accepted many honorary degrees but declined to make speeches. On November 5, 2007, George W. Bush presented Lee with the highest civilian award in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding contribution to literature. Harper Lee died in her sleep on the morning of 19th February 2016. She was 89 years old.