Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was an American writer famous for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960. The book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize immediately, becoming a classical book and a bestseller, and was soon adapted into a film in 1962. Being one of only two books by Harper Lee, it brought her instant fame.
In 2007 the author got the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to her for an important contribution to literature, as well as received several honoris causa degrees throughout her life.
Besides creating To Kill a Mockingbird, in 2015 she published what was called a “sequel” to it – a novel Go Set a Watchman, originally created in the 1950s, which later proved to be an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. In addition to these works, she also helped Truman Capote, an old friend of hers, to do the research for his book In Cold Blood (1966), as well as wrote and published a number of articles and essays.
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The writer was born on April 28, 1926, in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, to Frances Cunningham (Finch), a lawyer, and Amasa Coleman Lee. Nelle was the youngest of four children. Once her father defended in court two black men accused of killing a white storekeeper; however, his efforts went in vain, and the defendants were found guilty and executed. Similar events, as well as many other autobiographical details, were later included into the novel.
As a child, Lee attended Monroe County High School. During that period, she got interested in English literature. Upon graduation in 1944, she studied in Huntingdon College in Montgomery during one year, and later entered the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. There Lee studied law for a few years and wrote articles for a local magazine. However, she left the University without obtaining a degree.
In 1948, she was a student at a summer school at Oxford University. Her father hoped that she would continue her legal studies, but in 1949 she moved to New York, where she started working as an airline reservation agent for Eastern Air Lines and BOAC.
Nevertheless, she continued writing in her free time. After she wrote a number of long stories, she managed to find a literary agent in 1956.
When her friends presented her with an amount of money equal to her year’s earnings as a gift for Christmas, telling her she had a year to write whatever she pleased, she got an opportunity to finally become a professional writer.
In the spring of 1957 a manuscript of her novel was ready. It was originally titled Go Set a Watchman.
The publishing house J. B. Lippincott Company agreed to publish it, but they told it required a lot of editing. For 3 following years the writer collaborated with the company’s editor Tay Hohoff (Therese von Hohoff Torrey) who helped her to give the book its final form. A new title for the novel was chosen – To Kill a Mockingbird. Before publishing her book, Nelle Harper Lee adopted a shorter pen name Harper Lee.
The book was published in 1960 and became an immediate success, to the great surprise of its author. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The book still remains a bestseller. The novel was called the “Best Novel of the Century” by the Library Journal in 1999.
After Lee finished the novel, she and Truman Capote traveled to Holcomb, Kansas, to research the reaction of the town residents to the murder of a local farmer and his family members. The material they collected was then used by Capote to write his bestseller non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, published in 1966.
After publishing her unexpectedly famous novel, Harper Lee almost completely disappeared from public view.
In 1966, she was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by the Lyndon B. Johnson, the President of the United States at the time.
Although the writer accepted the awards provided to her, she rarely spoke in public and despite working on several other books, never completed any. The only writings she published were short essays and articles.
In 2005, Lee received the inaugural ATTY Award for positive depictions of lawyers in her book from the Spector Gadon & Rosen Foundation. The same year she also accepted the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award.
One year later, in 2006, she accepted an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame.
In 2007, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the US, by the President George W. Bush.
In 2010, she was presented with the National Medal of Arts by Barack Obama.
In 2011, a manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was found in Harper Lee’s safe-deposit box by her lawyer Tonja Carter. In 2014, a decision was made to publish it, and in 2015 the book was published as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, despite actually being an early draft of the latter. The books differ in plot, but there are many same phrases and passages found in both of them.
The Go Set a Watchman was the last published book in the writer’s lifetime. Harper Lee died on February 19, 2016, aged 89.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
- Go Set a Watchman (2015)
- “Love—In Other Words”. Vogue. April 15, 1961. pp. 64–65.
- “Christmas to Me”. McCall’s. December 1961.
- “When Children Discover America”. McCall’s. August 1965.
- “Romance and High Adventure”. 1983. A paper presented in Eufaula, Alabama, and collected in the anthology Clearings in the Thicket (1985).
- “Open letter to Oprah Winfrey”. O: The Oprah Magazine. July 2006.