Lee, (Nelle) Harper

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LEE, (Nelle) Harper

(b. 28 April 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama), author of the critically acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), which explores issues of racism and prejudice and which is widely considered one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century.

Lee was the youngest of three children of lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances (Finch) Lee and grew up in Monroeville. She became interested in writing when she was seven years old. Lee went to public school in Monroeville and then spent the 1944–1945 school year at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, before attending the University of Alabama from 1945 to 1949. She spent one of these years as an exchange student at Oxford University in England. Although she pursued a law degree at the University of Alabama, she left in 1950, six months before graduating, and moved to New York City to become a writer. Lee was never married and had no children.

In New York Lee worked as an airline reservation clerk and wrote in her free time. A literary agent who read her work suggested that she expand one of her stories into a novel. With this encouragement, as well as financial help from friends, she quit her job and began writing full time, developing the story into her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. She submitted the novel to Lippincott in 1957 and, after much rewriting, it was published in 1960. Within a year it had sold 500,000 copies and been translated into ten languages.

The novel, set in the 1930s, stars Jean "Scout" Finch, the tomboy daughter of Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama lawyer. Atticus is defending Tom Robinson, an African-American man who is falsely accused of raping a white girl. As the trial approaches, the situation becomes increasingly tense and dangerous. Racists threaten Tom Robinson's life as well as those of Atticus and his family, and in the end, although Atticus proves Robinson to be innocent, racial prejudice is so ingrained in the jurors and in society that they find him guilty.

At the same time, Scout is fascinated by a mysterious neighbor, Arthur "Boo" Radley, a reclusive man who is feared by many people in the town. Gradually Scout and her friends make contact with him; he turns out to be a kind but shy man and ultimately saves Scout's life when she is attacked by the father of the girl who was raped.

Both of these plot threads emphasize the necessity of understanding and accepting different kinds of people, even when that acceptance runs counter to social and legal custom. They also examine the depth of prejudice and hatred that can lie in the hearts of ordinary people in all walks of life, and how quickly such feelings can lead to violence.

The events in the book bear a striking similarity to those of the Scottsboro trial, in which nine African-American men were accused of raping a white girl. Although the evidence did not support this claim, and although another girl later confessed that the story was made up and that the rape never occurred, eight of the men were sentenced to death in 1931. The executions were suspended, and a series of retrials began, lasting until 1938. Four defendants were released in 1937. In 1938 one defendant, previously sentenced to death, received life imprisonment instead. Three others received jail sentences from seventy-five to ninety-nine years; one received a twenty-year sentence. Those in prison were paroled in the 1940s and through 1950, largely because of the work of activists on their behalf. It was not until 1976 that one of the defendants, who had fled from Alabama in 1946, was officially pardoned.

Themes of prejudice versus acceptance, as well as social justice, were on the minds of all Americans at the time the book was published, when the fight for civil rights and integration of African Americans was at its peak. Laws and customs dictating segregation of whites and African Americans had lasted for decades and were ingrained into society, most notably in the South. For example, throughout most of the twentieth century, African Americans were not allowed to use the same doctors, dentists, restaurants, restrooms, drinking fountains, public swimming pools, and other facilities that whites used. In many cases, they did not have these facilities at all. They went to separate and inferior schools and were not allowed to attend state colleges or universities. The only jobs available to them were menial and low-paying, many of them did not learn to read, and they were discouraged from voting because they did not meet qualifications, which were specifically designed to shut them out.

After World War II civil rights activists began challenging these laws and customs. In 1954 the United States Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of schools was illegal. In 1955, in Montgomery, African Americans began refusing to sit in their traditional place, at the back of city buses, boycotting services until they were allowed to sit wherever they wanted. And in 1956 African-American leaders began challenging laws that prevented black students from enrolling at the state university. Challenges like these served both to inspire further civil rights actions and to provoke furious and often violent actions against African Americans and those who defended their civil rights. This civil rights battle continued throughout the 1960s.

In 1961 To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, as well as the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It was selected by the Literary Guild and the Book-of-the-Month Club. In 1962 it won the Paperback of the Year award and was made into an Academy Award–winning film.

In the early 1960s Lee published several short pieces about personal experiences, as well as an article, "Love—In Other Words." She has continued to write since but has not published any work. However, even if she never publishes another story or novel, her reputation as an influential American author is secure. As Claudia Durst Johnson wrote in Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird, the book "is … one of the most widely read … and influential books in American literature. It has made a significant difference in the lives of individuals and in the culture."

Claudia Durst Johnson's Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird (1994) includes a detailed analysis of the novel as well as documents on its social and political context. For more information about Lee see Dorothy Jewell Altman, "Harper Lee," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 6: American Novelists Since World War II, Second Series (1980).

Kelly Winters

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