Harper Lee

views updated

Harper Lee

American writer Harper Lee (born 1926) is considered by many to be a literary icon. Her controversial novel To Kill a Mockingbird, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

Nelle Harper Lee was born April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, to Amasa Coleman and Frances (Finch) Lee. She is descended from Robert E. Lee, Civil War commander of the Confederate Army. Lee's father had been born in Butler County, Alabama, in 1880 and moved to Monroeville in 1913. He served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1927 to 1939, and was the model for Atticus Finch, hero of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee attended Huntingdon College, a private school for women in Montgomery, Alabama, from 1944 to 1945. She then transferred to the University of Alabama, which she attended from 1945 to 1950. While a student at Alabama, Lee contributed to several student publications, including the humor magazine Rammer-Jammer. In 1947, she enrolled at the University of Alabama School of Law. Lee traveled to England as an exchange student Oxford University. She left the University of Alabama six months short of completing her law degree, although she later was awarded an honorary degree by that institution. Lee's sister, Alice, did become a lawyer, and later took over their father's practice.

Lee moved to New York City in 1950, and worked for several years as an reservations clerk for Eastern Air Lines and British Overseas Airways. When friends offered to loan her enough money to write full-time for a year, she quit her job and penned the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1957, she submitted the manuscript to a publishing house and began a two-year process of revision.

Travels With Truman Capote

Shortly after Lee finished the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, Truman Capote invited her to accompany him to Garden City, Kansas, in order to provide research for a non-fiction book involving the murder of a farm family. Lee and Capote traced their friendship back to 1928, when Capote moved to Monroeville to live with his aunts, who were the next-door-neighbors of the Lees. Lee based a character in To Kill a Mockingbird on Capote, and he partially based a character in his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, on her. Lee helped Capote conduct interviews. Later, he raved to George Plimpton of the New York Times Book Review that Lee was "a gifted woman, courageous, and with a warmth that instantly kindles most people, however suspicious or dour."

Lee made several trips to Kansas with Capote, including one to attend the opening of the 1960 trial. Capote's best-selling book In Cold Blood was published in 1965 by Random House bearing the dedication, "For Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee, with my love and gratitude."

Publication of To Kill A Mockingbird

In 1960, Lippincott published Lee's book. To Kill a Mockingbird takes place at the end of the Great Depression in the small Alabama town of Maycomb, which is modeled after Lee's hometown of Monroeville. The book covers three years in the life of its narrator, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, who lives in Maycomb with her older brother, Jem, her widower father, Atticus, and the family housekeeper, Calpurnia. The story interweaves two plot lines. The main one is Atticus Finch's defense of an African-American man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a poor white woman. Although Robinson is clearly innocent, the jury finds him guilty, and he is killed trying to escape from prison. Finch's defense of Robinson makes him the lightening rod for the town's rage and fear of African-Americans.

The second plot line concerns Scout's and Jem's fascination with the notorious and eccentric local recluse, Boo Radley. Radley saves their lives when the father of Robinson's accuser tries to kill them on Halloween night. Both Robinson and Radley are symbolic of the mockingbird in the title, which comes from the proverb "it is a sin to kill a mockingbird." And according to Literature and Its Times, "the mockingbird is often regarded as the symbol of the South" and Lee chose it to "represent the devotion, purity of heart, and selflessness of [her] characters."

The story of To Kill a Mockingbird takes place during a tumultuous time in the South. The Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted through most of the 1930s, was particularly difficult for rural southerners, who saw much of their population leave family farms and cotton plantations for northern cities in search of education and work.

Lee is said to have been influenced greatly by the Scottsboro incident, which took place in the 1930s. Nine African-American men were accused of raping two white women. Every newspaper in Alabama covered the incident and several subsequent trials. Many parallels exist between the real Scottsboro trial and Lee' fictional trial of Robinson. When Lee began composing To Kill a Mockingbird, racial tensions were running high in the South as a whole, especially in Alabama. People all over the United States followed events like the 1955 omery bus boycott, launched by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger. In addition, the United States Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This decision set off waves of violence as African-American students attempted to enroll at previously all-white institutions, including Lee's own alma mater, the University of Alabama.

Praise and Criticism

To Kill a Mockingbird won praise from both critics and readers. "In her first novel, Harper Lee writes with gentle affection, rich humor and deep understanding of small-town family life in Alabama," wrote Frank H. Lyell in the New York Times Book Review.

Reviewers registered a few criticisms. Some considered the book's ending to be overly dramatic and unnecessarily violent. Others questioned the accuracy of the narrator's voice, the young Scout. "The praise Miss Lee deserves must be qualified somewhat by noting that oftentimes Scout's expository style has a processed, homogenized, impersonal flatness quite out of keeping with the narrator's gay, impulsive approach to life in youth," Lyell wrote.

The book rose above censure to become an American literary icon. To Kill a Mockingbird was chosen as a Literary Guild selection, Book-of-the-Month Club alternate, Reader's Digest Condensed Book, and British Book Society Choice. In 1961, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, making Lee the first woman to receive the prize since 1942. By the time it won the Pulitzer Prize, To Kill a Mockingbird had sold 500,000 copies and had been translated into 10 languages. The same year, it was honored with the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The book won the Bestseller's Paperback Award for the year 1962, having sold four and a half million copies. Lee received an honorary degree from Mount Holyoke College. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Lee to the National Council on the Arts.

Stage and Screen Adaptations

"It is no disparagement of Miss Lee's winning book," Lyell observed in his 1960 article in New York Times Book Review "to say that it could be the basis of an excellent film." Less than a year after the book was published, the movie rights for To Kill a Mockingbird were purchased and the film was made by Universal Pictures. Although Lee opted not to write the screenplay, she did consult on the film, which was released in 1962. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four. Gregory Peck won the "best actor" award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. Horton Foote, an accomplished Southern writer, won the "best screenplay" award. The book also came to life on the stage. In 1969, Christopher Sergel released a play based on the book, which was produced on stages throughout the United States and in England.

Enduring Legacy

Even after the glitter of Hollywood faded, To Kill a Mockingbird continued to reach new audiences. By 1982, it had sold more than 15 million copies. In her critical study To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries, Claudia Durst Johnson quoted a study that found that To Kill a Mockingbird "has been consistently one of the ten most frequently required books in secondary schools since its publication in 1960." The controversial book has been faced with numerous efforts to have it banned. Many southerners in the 1960s objected to its portrayal of white people.

Johnson found a survey that ranked To Kill a Mockingbird "second only to the Bible in being most often cited as making a difference in people's lives." That rings true especially for attorneys, Johnson wrote, who in large numbers cited Atticus Finch as having inspired them to pursue the study of law.

Southerner James Carville, who served as campaign manager for U.S. President Bill Clinton, told the New Yorker in October of 1992 that To Kill a Mockingbird changed his life. "I just knew, the minute I read it, that she was right and I had been wrong," he said.

Lee never tried to follow up her first success. After To Kill a Mockingbird, the only things she published were two magazine articles, both in 1961. "Love—in Other Words" appeared in Vogue, and "Christmas to Me" was printed in McCall's. The McCall's article described the life-changing Christmas card she received one year, which was inscribed: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please."

In 1997, Christian Science Monitor reporter Leigh Montgomery wanted to discover what Lee had been doing in recent years. Her literary agent said the writer split her time between Monroeville and New York. She enjoyed reading Jane Austen, Charles Lamb, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Lee valued her privacy and did not grant interviews. Her solo utterance came in the 1995 introduction to the 35th anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. She wrote, "I am still alive although very quiet."

David Martindale, writing for the monthly feature "Where Are They Now?" for Biography magazine, interviewed Lee's cousin, Richard Williams. He shared, "I asked her one time why she never wrote another book. She told me, "When you have a hit like that, you can't go anywhere but down."

Further Reading

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, edited by Jeff Chapman and Pamela S. Dear, Gale, 1996.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, 1990.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 6, edited by James E.Kibler, Jr., Gale, 1980.

Johnson, Claudia Durst, To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries, Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Literature and Its Times, edited by Joyce Moss and Wilson George, Gale, 1997.

Stuckey, W. J., The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look, University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.

Biography, September 1998, p. 24.

Christian Science Monitor, September 11, 1997.

Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 1996-1997.

New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1960; January 16, 1966. □