Harper Lee

A woman that caused a sensation, Harper Lee used her gift to say all the things that had to be said. American Novelist (1926-2016)

Harper Lee is an American novelist famed for her 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird. The novel brought Lee recognition and accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from two presidents of the United States.


Life Facts

  • Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, USA.
  • Her pen name Harper Lee is her middle name and her last name. Her first name Nelle is excluded from her pen name.
  • Harper Lee died on February 19, 2016 in Monroeville, Alabama.

Interesting Facts

  • Harper Lee is related to the famous Robert E. Lee, a general of the Confederate Army
  • She dropped out of college
  • Her friends gave her the equivalent of a year’s wages for her to quit her job and write a book
  • She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 for her 1960 novel titled To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Harper Lee has won the Presidential Medal of Freedom from two sitting presidents of the United States
  • Harper Lee and her childhood friend Truman Capote both grew up to become famous writers, and both of them based characters in their novels on each other.


Early Life

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, USA. She was the last of the four children of Frances Cunningham (nee Finch) and Amasa Coleman Lee. Her mother was a housewife who was said to be confined indoors for having a mental illness and her father was a lawyer who served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938.

Nelle Harper Lee’s first name Nelle is derived from spelling her grandmother’s name backward. And her middle Harper was in honor of a pediatrician, Dr. William Harper of Selma, who saved her elder sister Louise’s life.

Lee had three older siblings—Alice Finch Lee(1911-2014), Louise Lee Conner (1916-2009), and Edwin Lee(1920-1951). Due to a high age difference, Nelle Harper Lee in her childhood was not very close to her sisters. She was closer to her brother whose age was relatively closer to hers. But she found an even closer companion and playmate in Truman Capote (1924-1984) who lived with relatives in Monroeville from 1928 to 1934.


Education

Lee attended Monroe County High School in her Alabama hometown where she developed an interest in Literature and got mentorship from her teacher Gladys Watson.

She graduated high school in 1944 and attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery. At the time, the college was an all-female school, and her elder sister Alice Finch Lee had gotten a law degree from the college. After a year at Huntingdon, Nelle Harper Lee transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to continue her studies for a law degree.

At the University of Alabama, Lee wrote for the university newspaper The Crimson White and for the university’s humor magazine Rammer Jammer where she eventually became the editor.

To her father’s disappointment, Nelle Harper Lee dropped out of school just a semester before completing the requisite credits for a law degree.

In 1948, with hopes of reigniting Nelle’s interest in obtaining a law degree, her father sponsored her to attend a summer school program in Oxford University, England. The program was on ‘’European Civilisation in the Twentieth Century’’. But attending the program did not change Nelle Harper Lee’s mind about continuing her legal studies.


Personal Life and Literary Career

In 1949, Nelle Harper Lee moved to New York City with hopes of becoming a writer after abandoning legal studies. But the hustle and bustle of New York City proved to be a strain on her dreams of becoming a writer as working to earn a living left her little time to spare for writing.

In New York City, Lee worked first at a bookstore and then as a ticket reservation agent for an airline.

In her social life, she reconnected with her childhood friend Truman Capote who was also living in New York City at the time. She also became friends with Broadway composer and lyricist, Micheal Martin Brown, and his wife Joy Brown.

On Christmas day of 1956, Harper Lee received a gift of one year’s equivalent of her salary from her friends Micheal and Joy. Attached to it was a note: ”You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas”.

A grateful Nelle quit her job and promptly began to write. By the spring of 1957, she produced a manuscript that she sent to several publishers. J.B. Lippincott bought the script and a member of the company Therese von Hohoff Torrey, known professionally as Tay Hohoff began to work as editor of the script. Hohoff was impressed by the script but in her description, the script was ”more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”. Lee and her editor Hohoff spent the next couple of years working on several drafts of the script and eventually, the final draft was published in 1960 with the title ”To Kill A Mockingbird”.

Lee chose the pen name Harper Lee which was her middle name and her last name. She chose not to use her first name Nelle because she did not want anyone to misspelling it as ”Nellie”.

In 1961, Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for To Kill A Mockingbird. She also won several other awards for the sensational novel.

Harper Lee did not publish any other book besides To Kill A Mockingbird until July 2015 when another novel with her name as the author was published under the title Go Set A Watchman. Lee was eighty-nine years old at the publication of this second novel and it follows the later lives of the characters in To Kill A Mockingbird. However, the novel was later revealed to be an earlier draft of To Kill A Mockingbird written in 1957.

Nelle Harper Lee was never married and never had children.


Death

On February 19, 2016, Harper Lee died in her sleep at the age of eighty-nine in her hometown of Monroeville Alabama.

Harper Lee’s funeral was held at First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, Alabama. Her eulogy was given by her friend—the renowned Professor Emeritus Wayne Flint.


Harper Lee’s Legacy in Monroeville, Alabama

Harper Lee left a legacy in Monroeville, Alabama. Fans of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from across the world makes a pilgrimage to Monroeville to see the town that inspired the fictional town of Maycomb County in To Kill A Mockingbird.

To Kill A Mockingbird has also been incorporated into the art culture of the town—since 1990, a stage performance of the novel is enacted annually in Monroeville.


Literature by Harper Lee

Explore literature by Harper Lee below, created by the team at Book Analysis.