Harper Lee is the pen name of Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel addresses issues of racism in a small southern U.S. town and is frequently taught in high schools around the country. Lee was a small-town woman who enjoyed writing, crafted a story, published it, and then removed herself from the literary limelight. With a few exceptions, Lee has not published any other work. However, she is still heralded as one of the greatest American authors.
Portrait from the first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960. Photograph by Truman Capote.
She grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, where she became close friends with Truman Capote, who would later become a famous writer himself. She attended the University of Alabama, where she studied law and wrote for the school newspaper. However, she did not complete her degree. After a few years writing in her spare time with the assistance of her agent, her friends sponsored her to take a year off from her job to complete her manuscript. The result, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960. It was an immediate success and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961.
Lee assisted Truman Capote with the research for his In Cold Blood. She made attempts at writing additional fiction and nonfiction of her own, but she was unsatisfied and ultimately never published them.
Despite her success, Harper Lee remained humble and continued to live a relatively simple life. She declined all public appearances associated with her success. Although she has been awarded many honorary degrees and other recognitions, she did not speak at the occasions. She never married or had children, but she was close to her siblings and remained in close contact with Truman Capote until his death in 1984.
A portrait of Harper Lee soon after she won the Pulitzer Prize
Lee’s masterpiece recounts the story of an attorney, father to a young tomboy, who is caught in the position of negotiating between racist political pressures, the law, social acceptance, and his family’s safety. With an intriguing depiction of a young female protagonist, Lee captures a specific moment in the American south. The novel was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, with whom Lee has remained lifelong friends.
Harper Lee finally broke her silence in 2015 with the publication of another novel, Go Set a Watchman, which was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird but was never published until decades later.
She passed away in 2016, a year after publishing her second book, at the age of 89, but her legacy lives on. Her work has had a significant impact on American literature and continues to be studied and celebrated today.
“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” – Harper Lee
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Harper Lee
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” – Harper Lee
“The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.” – Harper Lee
“I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.” – Harper Lee
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