Portrait from the first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) (photo by Truman Capote)
|Born||Nelle Harper Lee|
April 28, 1926
Monroeville, Alabama, U.S.
|Died||February 19, 2016 (aged 89)|
Monroeville, Alabama, U.S.
|Pen name||Harper Lee|
|Education||University of Alabama|
|Literary movement||Southern Gothic|
|Notable works||To Kill a Mockingbird|
Go Set a Watchman
Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was an American novelist best known for her 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and has become a classic of modern American literature. Lee published only two books, yet she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contribution to literature. She also received numerous honorary degrees, though she declined to speak on those occasions. She assisted her close friend Truman Capote in his research for the book In Cold Blood (1966). Capote was the basis for the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The plot and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird are loosely based on Lee's observations of her family and neighbors, as well as an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936 when she was 10. The novel deals with the irrationality of adult attitudes towards race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s, as depicted through the eyes of two children. It was inspired by racist attitudes in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. She also wrote the novel Go Set a Watchman in the mid-1950s and published it in July 2015 as a sequel to Mockingbird, but it was later confirmed to be merely her first draft of Mockingbird.
Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama  where she grew up as the youngest of four children of Frances Cunningham (Finch) and Amasa Coleman Lee. Her parents chose her middle name, Harper, to honor pediatrician Dr. William W. Harper, of Selma, who saved the life of her sister Louise. Her first name, Nelle, was her grandmother's name spelled backwards and the name she used, Harper Lee being primarily her pen name. Lee's mother was a homemaker; her father, a former newspaper editor, businessman and lawyer, also served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. Before A.C. Lee became a title lawyer, he once defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Both clients, a father, and son, were hanged. Lee had three siblings: Alice Finch Lee (1911-2014), Louise Lee Conner (1916-2009), and Edwin Lee (1920-1951). Although Nelle remained in contact with her significantly older sisters throughout their lives, only her brother was close enough in age to play with, though she grew closer with Truman Capote (1924-1984), who visited family in Monroeville during the summers from 1928 until 1934.
While enrolled at Monroe County High School, Lee developed an interest in English literature, in part because teacher Gladys Watson became her mentor. After graduating from high school in 1944, like her eldest sister Alice Finch Lee, Nelle attended the then all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery for a year, then transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where, she studied law for several years. Nelle Lee also wrote for the university newspaper and a humor magazine, but to her father's great disappointment, left one semester before completing the credit hours necessary for a degree. In the summer of 1948, Lee attended a summer school in European civilization at Oxford University in England, financed by her father, who hoped--in vain, as it turned out--that the experience would make her more interested in her legal studies in Tuscaloosa.
I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.-- Harper Lee, quoted in Newquist, 1964
In 1949, Lee moved to New York City and took a job--first at a bookstore, then as an airline reservation agent, in order to write in her spare time. After publishing several long stories, Lee found an agent in November 1956; Maurice Crain would become a friend until his death decades later. The following month, at Michael Brown's East 50th Street townhouse, friends gave Nelle a gift of a year's wages with a note: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas."
In the spring of 1957, a 31-year-old Lee delivered the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman to Crain to send out to publishers, including the now-defunct J. B. Lippincott Company, which eventually bought it. At Lippincott, the novel fell into the hands of Therese von Hohoff Torrey--known professionally as Tay Hohoff. Hohoff was impressed. "[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line", she would later recount in a corporate history of Lippincott. But as Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel". During the next couple of years, she led Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled To Kill a Mockingbird. Meanwhile, interest in racial relations in the South had increased nationally as the U.S. Supreme Court had issued its school desegregation decisions in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and the civil rights movement as well as the segregationist "massive resistance" strategy made headlines across the nation.
Like many unpublished authors, Lee was unsure of her talents. "I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told," Lee said in a statement in 2015 about the evolution from Watchman to Mockingbird. Hohoff later described the process in Lippincott's corporate history: "After a couple of false starts, the story-line, interplay of characters, and fall of emphasis grew clearer, and with each revision--there were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in her own vision of it--the true stature of the novel became evident." (In 1978, Lippincott was acquired by Harper & Row, which became HarperCollins which published Watchman in 2015.) Hohoff described the give and take between author and editor: "When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours" ... "And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of country."
|After Words interview with Shields on Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, July 11, 2015, C-SPAN|
One winter night, as Charles J. Shields recounts in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Lee threw her manuscript out her window and into the snow, before calling Hohoff in tears. Shields recollected that "Tay told her to march outside immediately and pick up the pages".
When the novel was finally ready, the author opted to use the name "Harper Lee", rather than risk having her first name Nelle be misidentified as "Nellie".
Published July 11, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate bestseller and won great critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. It remains a bestseller, with more than 30 million copies in print. In 1999, it was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a poll by the Library Journal.
Like Lee, the tomboy Scout of the novel is the daughter of a respected small-town Alabama attorney. Scout's friend, Dill, was inspired by Lee's childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote; Lee, in turn, is the model for a character in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948. Although the plot of Lee's novel involves an unsuccessful legal defense similar to one undertaken by her attorney father, the 1931 landmark Scottsboro Boys interracial rape case may also have helped to shape Lee's social conscience.
While Lee herself downplayed autobiographical parallels in the book, Truman Capote, mentioning the character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, described details he considered autobiographical: "In my original version of Other Voices, Other Rooms I had that same man living in the house that used to leave things in the trees, and then I took that out. He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true. But you see, I take the same thing and transfer it into some Gothic dream, done in an entirely different way."
Lee lived part-time for 40 years at 433 East 82nd Street in Manhattan, near her childhood friend Capote, whose first novel, the semi-autobiographical Other Voices, Other Rooms had been published in 1948; a decade later Capote published Breakfast at Tiffany's, and over the next decade it would become a film, musical and two stage plays. As the To Kill a Mockingbird manuscript went into publication production in 1959, Lee accompanied Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to help him research what they thought would be an article on a small town's response to the murder of a farmer and his family. Capote would expand the material into his best-selling book, In Cold Blood, serialized beginning in September 1965 and published in 1966.
To Kill a Mockingbird officially appeared on July 11, 1960, and Lee began a whirlwind of publicity tours, etc., which she found difficult given her penchant for privacy and many interviewers' characterization of the work as a "coming-of-age story". Moreover, as the book (about racial relations in the 1930s) progressed through the production process, racial tensions in the South had increased. The Montgomery bus boycott occurred in 1955-56, and students at North Carolina A&T University staged the first sit-in months before publication. As the book became a best seller, Freedom Riders arrived in Alabama and were beaten in Anniston and Birmingham. Meanwhile, To Kill a Mockingbird won the 1961 Pulitzer prize for fiction and the 1961 Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and became a Reader's Digest Book Club condensed selection and an alternate Book of the Month Club selection.
Lee helped with the adaption of the book to the 1962 Academy Award-winning screenplay by Horton Foote, and approved of the result: "I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made." She also escorted lead actor Gregory Peck around town. Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, the father of the novel's narrator, Scout. The families became close; Peck's grandson, Harper Peck Voll, is named after her.
Initially, Lee tried to answer personally correspondence from fans, but when she began receiving more than 60 letters daily, she realized the demands on her time were too great. Her sister Alice became her lawyer, and Lee obtained an unlisted telephone number to reduce distractions from many people seeking interviews or public appearances. From the time of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird until her death in 2016, Lee granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances and, with the exception of a few short essays, published nothing further until 2015. She did work on a follow-up novel--The Long Goodbye--but eventually filed it away unfinished.
Lee also assumed significant care responsibilities for her father, who was thrilled with her success, and even began signing autographs as "Atticus Finch". However, his health worsened and he died in Alabama on April 15, 1962. She decided to spend more time in New York City as she mourned, but over the decades her friend Capote became embroiled in a flamboyant jet-set lifestyle far from her preference for anonymity and a more spartan lifestyle. Lee preferred to visit friends at their homes (though she came to distance herself from those who criticized her drinking), and also made unannounced appearances at libraries or other gatherings, particularly in Monroeville.
Lee also realized that her book had become controversial, particularly with segregationists and other opponents of the civil rights movement. In 1966, Lee wrote a letter to the editor in response to the attempts of a Richmond, Virginia, area school board to ban To Kill a Mockingbird as "immoral literature":
Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is 'immoral' has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.
James J. Kilpatrick, editor of The Richmond News Leader, started the Beadle Bumble fund to pay fines for victims of what he termed "despots on the bench". He built the fund using contributions from readers and later used it to defend books as well as people. After the board in Richmond ordered schools to dispose of all copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, Kilpatrick wrote, "A more moral novel scarcely could be imagined." In the name of the Beadle Bumble fund, he then offered free copies to children who wrote in, and by the end of the first week, he had given away 81 copies.
Beginning in 1978, with her sisters' encouragement, Lee returned to Alabama and began a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer and the trial of his killer in Alexander City, under the working title The Reverend, but also put it aside when she was not satisfied. When Lee attended the 1983 Alabama History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula, Alabama, as her sister had arranged, she presented the essay "Romance and High Adventure".
In March 2005, Lee arrived in Philadelphia--her first trip to the city since signing with publisher Lippincott in 1960--to receive the inaugural ATTY Award for positive depictions of attorneys in the arts from the Spector Gadon & Rosen Foundation. At the urging of Peck's widow, Veronique Peck, Lee traveled by train from Monroeville to Los Angeles in 2005 to accept the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award. She also attended luncheons for students who have written essays based on her work, held annually at the University of Alabama. On May 21, 2006, she accepted an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, where graduating seniors saluted her with copies of To Kill a Mockingbird during the ceremony.
On May 7, 2006, Lee wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey (published in O, The Oprah Magazine in July 2006) about her love of books as a child and her dedication to the written word: "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books."
While attending an August 20, 2007, ceremony inducting four members into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Lee declined an invitation to address the audience, saying: "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool."
On November 5, 2007, George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is the highest civilian award in the United States and recognizes individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors".
In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Lee the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given by the United States government for "outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts".
In a 2011 interview with an Australian newspaper, Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts said Lee now lived in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair-bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss. Butts also shared that Lee told him why she never wrote again: "Two reasons: one, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again."
On May 3, 2013, Lee had filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court to regain the copyright to To Kill a Mockingbird, seeking unspecified damages from a son-in-law of her former literary agent and related entities. Lee claimed that the man "engaged in a scheme to dupe" her into assigning him the copyright on the book in 2007 when her hearing and eyesight were in decline, and she was residing in an assisted-living facility after having suffered a stroke. In September 2013, attorneys for both sides announced a settlement of the lawsuit.
In February 2014, Lee settled a lawsuit against the Monroe County Heritage Museum for an undisclosed amount. The suit alleged that the museum had used her name and the title To Kill a Mockingbird to promote itself and to sell souvenirs without her consent. Lee's attorneys had filed a trademark application on August 19, 2013, to which the museum filed an opposition. This prompted Lee's attorney to file a lawsuit on October 15 that same year, "which takes issue the museum's website and gift shop, which it accuses of 'palming off its goods', including T-shirts, coffee mugs other various trinkets with Mockingbird brands."
According to Lee's lawyer Tonja Carter, following an initial meeting to appraise Lee's assets in 2011, she re-examined Lee's safe-deposit box in 2014 and found the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman. After contacting Lee and reading the manuscript, she passed it on to Lee's agent Andrew Nurnberg.
On February 3, 2015, it was announced that HarperCollins would publish Go Set a Watchman, which includes versions of many of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. According to a HarperCollins press release, it was originally thought that the Watchman manuscript was lost. According to Nurnberg, Mockingbird was originally intended to be the first book of a trilogy: "They discussed publishing Mockingbird first, Watchman last, and a shorter connecting novel between the two."
Jonathan Mahler's account in The New York Times of how Watchman was only ever really considered to be the first draft of Mockingbird makes this assertion seem unlikely. Evidence where the same passages exist in both books, in many cases word for word, also further refutes this assertion.
The book was controversially published in July 2015 as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, though it has been confirmed to be the first draft of the latter, with many narrative incongruities, repackaged and released as a completely separate work. The book is set some 20 years after the time period depicted in Mockingbird, when Scout returns as an adult from New York to visit her father in Maycomb, Alabama. It alludes to Scout's view of her father, Atticus Finch, as the moral compass ("watchman") of Maycomb, and, according to the publisher, how she finds upon her return to Maycomb, that she "is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father's attitude toward society and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood."
Not all reviewers have such a harsh opinion about the publication of the sequel book. Michiko Kakutani in Books of The Times article finds that the book "makes for disturbing reading" when Scout is shocked to find... that her beloved father... has been affiliating with raving anti-integration, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion... Though it lacks the lyricism... the portions of "Watchman" dealing with Scout's childhood and her adult romance with Henry capture the daily rhythms of life in a small town and are peppered with portraits of minor characters" and she mentions that "Students of writing will find 'Watchman' fascinating." While not fully praising the book she finds the publication of "Watchman" an important step stone in understanding Harper Lee's work.
The publication of the novel (announced by her lawyer) raised concerns over why Lee, who for 55 years had maintained that she would never write another book, would suddenly choose to publish again. In February 2015, the State of Alabama, through its Human Resources Department, launched an investigation into whether Lee was competent enough to consent to the publishing of Go Set a Watchman. The investigation found that the claims of coercion and elder abuse were unfounded, and, according to Lee's lawyer, Lee was "happy as hell" with the publication.
This characterization, however, was contested by many of Lee's friends. Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, a friend and former neighbor, painted a very different picture. In her piece for The Washington Post, "The Harper Lee I Knew", she quoted Alice--Lee's sister, whom she described as "gatekeeper, advisor, protector" for most of Lee's adult life--as saying, "Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence." She made note that Watchman was announced just two and a half months after Alice's death and that all correspondence to and from Lee went through her new attorney. She described Lee as "in a wheelchair in an assisted living center, nearly deaf and blind, with a uniformed guard posted at the door" and her visitors "restricted to those on an approved list."
The New York Times columnist Joe Nocera continued this argument. He also took issue with how the book was promoted by the 'Murdoch Empire' as a "newly discovered" novel, attesting that the other people in the Sothebys meeting insisted that Lee's attorney was present in 2011, when Lee's former agent (who was subsequently fired) and the Sotheby's specialist found the manuscript. They said she knew full well that it was the same one submitted to Tay Hohoff in the 1950s that was reworked into Mockingbird, and that Lee's lawyer Tonja Carter had been sitting on the discovery, waiting for the moment when she, and not Alice, would be in charge of Harper Lee's affairs.
Lee died in her sleep on the morning of February 19, 2016, aged 89. Prior to her death, she lived in Monroeville, Alabama. On February 20, her funeral was held at First United Methodist Church in Monroeville. The service was attended by close family and friends, and the eulogy was given by Wayne Flynt.
After her death, The New York Times filed a lawsuit that argued that since Lee's will was filed in a probate court in Alabama that it should be part of the public record. They argued that wills filed in a probate court are considered part of the public record, and that Lee's should follow suit.
Harper Lee was portrayed by Catherine Keener in the film Capote (2005), by Sandra Bullock in the film Infamous (2006), and by Tracey Hoyt in the TV movie Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998). In the adaptation of Truman Capote's novel Other Voices, Other Rooms (1995), the character of Idabel Thompkins, who was inspired by Capote's memories of Lee as a child, was played by Aubrey Dollar.
In a parallel development to- day, the President appointed Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "To Kill a Mockingbird." and Richard Diebenkorn, artist, to the National Council on the Arts.
Lee, in a statement released by Carter, said she was "happy as hell" that it was finally being published. The statement also quoted Lee as saying that she recently showed the manuscript to some unnamed friends, who verified its merit, thus convincing her to reverse her long-held decision about not publishing. In the statement, she said that she was young when she wrote it, so when an editor told her to reshape it, "I did as I was told."