Today is the 94th birthday of the author Harper Lee. She is an essential part of the American experience through her book To Kill A Mockingbird, it resonates with so very many people, including me and probably many of you reading this right now. She is an American treasure, we are very fortunate to have her in our lives and the world is a better place because she is in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Harper Lee
BIRTH DATE: April 28, 1926
DEATH DATE: February 19, 2016
EDUCATION: Huntington College, University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Oxford University
PLACE OF BIRTH: Monroeville, Alabama
PLACE OF DEATH: Monroeville, Alabama
Pulitzer Prize: Fiction 1961 for To Kill A Mockingbird
BEST KNOW FOR: Harper Lee is best known for writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ (1960) and ‘Go Set a Watchman’ (2015), which portrays the later years of the Finch family.
Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama, a tiny town about halfway between Montgomery and Mobile, where her next-door neighbor and best friend was the pre-pubescent Truman Capote. As an adult, Lee accompanied Capote as he trekked to Kansas researching In Cold Blood, and she was so deeply involved in that book’s creation that by some accounts she deserved co-author credit. Capote was the inspiration for the neighbor boy ‘Dill’ in To Kill A Mockingbird, and he said that a character in his Other Voices, Other Rooms was based on Lee.
Lee’s father — a lawyer and the basis for Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird — served in the Alabama legislature from 1927 to 1939. He was reportedly a staunch segregationist until the late 1950s, when the increasing civil rights protests caught his attention and sympathies. Despite popular assumption, the family are not distant descendants of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
She attended three colleges, studied law, and was briefly an exchange student at Oxford, but she received no degrees. By the 1950s she was working as an airline reservations clerk and writing in her free time, until she received a remarkable Christmas present from friends — a year’s wages, without having to work. She argued that they could not afford such generosity, but they insisted that with her talent and a year without distraction, something wonderful would result.
What resulted was To Kill A Mockingbird, published in 1960 and now widely acclaimed as one of the best American novels. It spans three years in the childhood of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young Alabama girl, and her older brother Jem, while their widowed father, small-time attorney Atticus Finch, defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Deftly sewing these threads into a story larger than its small-town characters and setting, the book spent eighty weeks on the best-seller list, sold 30,000,000 copies, and has been translated into more than forty languages. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and was adapted into a film in 1962, starring Gregory Peck.
In her last interview, in 1964, Lee said she had “never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird”, and that she was having a difficult time writing her next novel. She wrote a few magazine essays after Mockingbird made her famous, but another novel did not appear under her byline until 2015, with the publication of Go Set a Watchman, which was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman centers on Mockingbird’s main character, Scout, but in Watchman she is an adult.
The author’s Christmas benefactors were Broadway lyricist Michael Brown and his wife Joy. Brown is best remembered for his work on the 1955 stage musical House of Flowers from a Capote short story. The play starred Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll.
Lee lived with her sister for many years, eschewing all publicity and declining all interview requests. She rarely made “public appearances,” but those who knew her chuckled at the notion that she was a recluse, as she had a large circle of friends in and around her home town of Monroeville, Alabama. After a stroke in 2006 she moved into a nursing home, her health in slow decline. Lee died in 2016.
Author of books:
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960, novel)
Go Set a Watchman (2015, novel)