Harper Lee, author of the classic fiction novel To Kill A Mockingbird, was born to Frances and Amasa Coleman Lee on April 28,1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. She also died there peacefully as she slept on February 19, 2016 at the age of 89. Her given first name was actually Nelle, which is her grandmother, Ellen’s, name spelled backwards, but chose her pen name to be Harper Lee. She had three older siblings, Alice, Louise and Edwin.
In high school, Harper absolutely loved English literature. After graduation, she opted to study law (like her father?) and attended Huntington College, the University of Alabama and Oxford University in England. Six months prior to earning her law degree, she dropped out of college and moved to New York in 1949 to become a writer. There she reunited with her childhood friend from Monroeville, Truman Capote, who had moved to New York City in 1933 and was already an established author. She worked full time, wrote when she had spare time and never married.
In 1957 Harper delivered a manuscript titled Go Set A Watchman to an agent to send out to publishers. It was bought by the J.B. Lippincott Company where an editor determined it was by no means fit for publication, though obviously written by a talented writer. With author and editor working together, and after several years of re-writes, the book’s title was changed to To Kill A Mockingbird and published on July 11, 1960.
Being a first-time writer, Harper had thin confidence in her skills as such and expected reviewers to destroy the book quickly. Instead, it received rave reviews and became an instant best seller. She found the fame that tags along with literary success to be very frightening and grew to be an extremely private person, avoiding public exposure with a vengeance. In spite of that, she went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and in 1999 it was deemed Best Novel of the Century, among many other awards as recent as 2011.
In childhood, she and Truman Capote lived just down the street from each other and were life-long devoted friends. The character, Dill, in her book was based on him. They were so bonded that when Truman went to Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 to research an article about the Clutter murders, Harper went with him. Perhaps she accompanied him to buffer the exuberant personality and flamboyant behavior of Mr. Capote.
My husband was born and raised just 75 miles east of Holcomb and I’ve seen the area many times. At the time of their visit, the population was 270. Therefore, I’m certain Truman Capote would have garnered much attention and would have been a tremendous culture shock to the quiet, unassuming people of that little remote, rural community, situated smack in the heart of the Bible Belt. Whatever the situation, Capote’s article evolved into his best-selling book In Cold Blood, published in 1966 and making him a world famous author.
A screenplay was written for To Kill A Mockingbird and Gregory Peck starred in and won an Academy Award for it in 1962. Harper became very close with the Peck family and a Peck grandson is named Harper Peck Voll in her honor. Harper also gave Gregory Peck her father’s pocket watch. which he wore to accept the Oscar.
In To Kill A Mockingbird several characters are named after Lee’s friends and family or are based on them. However, she always downplayed rumors her book was autobiographical. Those of us who are published authors are familiar with this quandary. Many of us, myself included, have been asked many times if our books are autobiographical when they, in fact, are not. We are taught to write what we know, so characters may be gleaned from aspects of colorful characters, settings may be based on actual places and familiar names given characters, but the meat of our books are pure fiction. In Ms. Lee’s case, it matters not because it certainly worked for her. She was a fantastic writer and leaves us with a classic fiction book that she created.
In July 2015 a second book by Harper Lee was released titled Go Set A Watchman. Harper is said to have been somewhat frail by that time with waning sight and hearing and her sister, Alice, who had been her personal/business manager, had recently died. There is much controversy about the book being a sequel to or the original manuscript for To Kill A Mockingbird. Either way would be a wonderful gift, in my opinion. The rest of us should be so lucky.