Harper Lee

Although she only published two books over the course of her entire career, Harper Lee holds a place of undisputed importance in modern American literature. Her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) received the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it remains widely read and discussed. Her numerous accolades include the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of the Arts.

Harper Lee Harper Lee

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Table of contents

    Content Warning: Contains themes of rape

    Harper Lee: Biography

    Early Life

    Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926 to homemaker Frances Cunningham and lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee. She was the youngest of four children and grew up in Monroeville, Alabama. Lee was named ‘Nelle’ because it was her grandmother’s name spelled backward, and ‘Harper’ for the pediatrician who saved the life of one of her sisters. On the Lee side of the family, the aspiring writer was related to the confederate general Robert E. Lee.

    During high school, teenage Lee became interested in English literature. However, upon graduating she began a law degree at her father’s insistence, which she never finished.

    Lee used her first name, Nelle, in her day-to-day life, and she used Harper Lee as her pen name because she didn't want to risk 'Nelle' being continually mispronounced as 'Nellie'.

    Adult Life and Literary Career

    In 1949, 24-year-old Lee moved to New York City, where she worked different jobs while dedicating her free time to writing. Here she began work on what would be her most important novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee finished an early draft in 1957 and spent the next year rewriting and revising. Finally, the novel was published in 1960, at the height of the United States civil rights movement.

    To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant success and won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

    Harper Lee, New York City, StudySmarterHarper Lee lived in New York City for most of her adult life. Pixabay.com

    Lee would continue to live in Manhattan for the next forty years and would not publish another novel, although she began and later abandoned several projects. Lee’s adult life was marked by her desire for privacy. She attributed her reluctance to publish another book to her discomfort with attention, publicity, and time spent in the public eye. She made few public appearances over the years and refused most interview requests.

    As a child, Harper Lee made friends with a young Truman Capote. The two would remain close throughout their adult life. Lee and Capote lived near one another in New York City, and Lee even helped Capote with his research for his true crime novel, In Cold Blood (1965).

    There are characters in both writers’ work that are inspired by their friendship. For example, Dill in Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and a woman in Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).

    In 2014, Lee’s lawyer found the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman in Lee’s safe-deposit box. The novel was published as the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird in 2015. Lee was quite elderly at this point, and some found it suspicious that the author agreed to publish the manuscript after insisting on her privacy for so many years. However, no evidence of elder abuse or coercion could be found.

    Harper Lee died on February 19, 2016, in Monroeville, Alabama. She was eighty-nine years old.

    Harper Lee: Books

    Harper Lee became one of the most important names in modern American literature, with a literary career that consisted primarily of only one novel: To Kill a Mockingbird. Her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was published 55 years later—just one year before the author’s death.

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant American classic. The novel tells the story of six-year-old Scout Finch as she grows up over a three-year period in rural, Depression-era Alabama. When Scout’s father, a lawyer named Atticus Finch, defends a Black man charged with raping and beating a white girl, Scout and her brother Jem have their eyes opened to the racism and prejudice in their small town.

    To Kill a Mockingbird is a key work of modern American literature and won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

    Although the novel is a work of fiction, Lee was inspired by some autobiographical elements. Like Scout, Lee grew up in rural Alabama, and her father was a lawyer who unsuccessfully defended a Black man in court. Maycomb, the fictional town in To Kill a Mockingbird, is thought to be modeled on Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

    Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

    Published in 2015, just a year before Lee’s death, Go Set a Watchman is the author’s second published novel. The book takes place approximately twenty years after the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout returns to her hometown to visit her father, Atticus, and there she must confront the racial tensions of 1950's Alabama.

    Initially, Go Set a Watchman was seen as a sequel to Lee’s first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. However, it was later discovered that this new novel was actually the first draft of Lee’s acclaimed book and written before To Kill a Mockingbird was ever published.

    The elderly Lee’s sudden reversal of her lifelong insistence to never publish another book raised suspicions among some. Also controversial was the discovery of the manuscript in Lee’s safe-deposit box and the somewhat misleading marketing of the novel as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Harper Lee: Facts

    • Harper Lee lived next door to fellow writer Truman Capote when they were children, and the two maintained a life-long friendship.
    • While living in New York City as a young woman, Harper Lee worked in a bookstore and as an airline ticket clerk.
    • In 1966, Harper Lee was appointed to the National Council for the Arts.
    • In 2006, the University of Notre Dame awarded Harper Lee an honorary degree.
    • In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Harper Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
    • In 2010, Harper Lee received the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama.
    • Harper Lee was an avid fan of the New York Mets, and she enjoyed playing golf.

    Key Themes and Quotes from Harper Lee’s Work

    On Morality

    …but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” -To Kill a Mockingbird (Chapter 11)

    What stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious… she did not know that she worshiped him.” - Go Set a Watchman (Chapter 9)

    In both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, the father, lawyer Atticus Finch, functions as a moral compass. As a strict but kind single father, he strives to instill strong moral values in his children, Scout and Jem. He tries to give them the tools to distinguish right from wrong, follow their conscience, and stick to their principles no matter what. Atticus’ empathy illustrates the complexity of right and wrong and good and evil. People are not always simple in Lee’s novels, and the right thing is not always clear.

    On Prejudice

    You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—” “Sir?” “—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” - To Kill a Mockingbird (Chapter 3)

    Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” - Go Set a Watchman (Chapter 18)

    Prejudice, racism, and discrimination are important themes in Lee’s novels. Both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman examine racism in the Depression-era South and during the civil rights movement, respectively. However, Lee also portrays characters who are marginalized and discriminated against on the basis of class, occupation, gender, or cruel rumors.

    On the Mockingbird

    Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” -To Kill a Mockingbird (Chapter 10)

    Harper Lee, Mockingbird, StudySmarterThe mockingbird, a potent symbol of innocence in Harper Lee's classic novel, pixabay.com

    At first glance, the mockingbird has nothing to do with the plot of Lee’s famous novel. It is, however, an important symbol in the story. A mockingbird is an innocent, harmless creature that exists to make the world more beautiful with its song. Killing one is nothing but unnecessary cruelty. However, the world destroys or damages innocent creatures every day, and many characters fit this description in Lee’s novel.

    Harper Lee - Key takeaways

    • Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama, on April 28, 1926.
    • Harper Lee lived in New York City for most of her adult life.
    • Despite being an important figure in modern American literature, Lee only wrote and published two novels.
    • Lee's first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960.
    • Lee's second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was published in 2015.

      Go Set a Watchman was thought to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was later discovered to be an early draft of Lee’s first novel.

    • Harper Lee died back home in Monroeville, Alabama, on February 19, 2016. She was eighty-nine years old.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Harper Lee

    What was Harper Lee’s purpose for writing the book To Kill a Mockingbird?

    Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird with the intention of unpacking some of the difficult themes she witnessed growing up in the South. These include issues of morality, racism, and justice.

    What influenced Harper Lee to write To Kill a Mockingbird?

    Harper Lee was influenced in part by her own life when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Like the protagonist, Scout Finch, Lee grew up in rural Alabama, and her father was a lawyer who unsuccessfully defended a Black man in court.

    Who is Harper Lee?

    Harper Lee was an American author. Her most famous novel is To Kill a Mockingbird.

    How many books did Harper Lee write?

    Harper Lee wrote two novels, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

    When did Harper Lee die?

    Harper Lee died in 2016.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which is NOT an important theme in To Kill a Mockingbird?

    What is Atticus’ job?

    What nickname is Jean Louise Finch known by?


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