Harper Lee Biography

Harper Lee was born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1926. Her best friend growing up was Truman Capote, the author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Both moved to New York City, where they found success as writers. Lee published To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960, and the novel has since gone on to become one of the most widely read books in all of history. Although Lee never married, she was not reclusive. Known for being pleasant and witty, she granted a few interviews when To Kill a Mockingbird appeared in 1960, but since then fought fiercely to stay out of the public eye. For years, there was much speculation about her inaccessibility, and why she completed only one book. Perhaps it was because Harper Lee—through the spirited tomboy Scout and the quietly private Boo Radley—had already revealed everything about herself that we needed to know.

Facts and Trivia

  • Harper Lee’s mother was Frances Cunningham Finch. Lee uses all three of her mother’s names for characters in To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird was made into a major motion picture starring Gregory Peck in 1962. Peck won an Oscar for his performance in the film.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird was banned by Virginia’s Hanover County School Board in 1966 because it deals with the subject of rape. Harper Lee defended her book as espousing a Christian ethic and an honorable code of conduct. She scathingly questioned whether the school board members, in grossly misjudging her novel’s content, were illiterate.
  • Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was finally published in 2015. It was an immediate best seller. Lee died the following year at the age of 89.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

The third daughter and youngest child of Amasa Coleman Lee, an attorney and newspaper publisher, and Frances Finch Lee, reportedly a somewhat eccentric pianist, Nelle Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, where she was born on April 28, 1926. She attended public school there, then went to Huntington College for Women in Montgomery for a year, before transferring to the University of Alabama in 1945. Lee edited the college newspaper, the Rammer Jammer, and spent a year as an exchange student at Oxford University.

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In 1950, Lee entered law school, no doubt with the intention of following in her father’s footsteps. However, after one year she decided to abandon the study of law and go to New York City to pursue a career in writing. Throughout the early 1950’s, Lee worked by day as a reservation clerk for Eastern Airlines and British Overseas Airways, living in a cramped apartment with no hot water and writing in her free time. During this period she also made many trips to Monroeville to be with her ailing father, who died in 1962. Happily, Amasa Lee did live long enough to see To Kill a Mockingbird become a hugely successful book.

In a short article published in McCall’s in December, 1961, called “Christmas to Me,” Lee recounts how she missed her home and family, contrasting New York City with memories of Monroeville during the Christmas season. However, she made some very close friends in her adopted home, and she spent Christmas with one of these families, who surprised her with a monetary gift. On the accompanying card were the words, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” She was overwhelmed, but her benefactors felt that their faith in Lee’s ability was well founded.

Lee used this time carefully: A methodical writer, she composed a few pages each day and revised them carefully, completing three short fictional sketches by 1957. After being advised that she must do more to transform this work into a novel, she continued to write for two and a half years, until To Kill a Mockingbird went to press in 1960, dedicated to her father and to her older sister, Alice, a partner in the family law firm.

Writer Truman Capote spent a great part of his childhood in Monroeville, staying each summer with relatives whose house was close to the Lees’. The character of Charles Baker Harris, nicknamed Dill, in To Kill a Mockingbird is an accurate portrait of the young Capote, who remained close to Lee throughout his life. In the early 1960’s, Lee went with Capote to Kansas to help him research his true-crime book of nonfiction In Cold Blood (1966), which chronicles the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote dedicated the book to Lee and another lifelong friend, Jack Dunphy. Much of what is known about Lee is revealed in Capote’s works and in those written about him by others.

Lee was invited to write the screenplay for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, but she declined. She was, however, very pleased with screenwriter Horton Foote’s script, about which she said, “If the integrity of a film adaptation is measured by the degree to which the novelist’s intent is preserved, Mr. Foote’s screenplay should be studied as a classic.” She was so delighted by Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch that she honored his performance and resemblance to her father by giving him Amasa Lee’s gold pocket watch, which was inscribed “To Gregory from Harper, 1962.”

To Kill a Mockingbird has sold millions of copies, but its success did not propel Lee to produce another book. As she told her cousin, Richard Williams, when he questioned her about this, “When you have a hit like that, you can’t go anywhere but down.” Although known in her hometown as a friendly and jovial woman, Lee consistently refused all interview requests. In 1995, when HarperCollins released the thirty-fifth-anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee declined to write an introduction, stating, “The book still says what it has to say: it has managed to survive the years without preamble.” She continued to divide her time between a New York apartment and a modest house in Monroeville, which she shared with her sister, Alice.

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