Harper Lee

Harper Lee
Harper Lee

President George W. Bush presents Harper Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on November 5, 2007
Born April 28, 1926 (1926-04-28) (age 85)
Monroeville, Alabama
Occupation Novelist
Nationality American
Subjects Literature
Literary movement Southern Gothic


Nelle Harper Lee (born April 28, 1926) is an American author known for her 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which deals with the issues of racism that were observed by the author as a child in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Despite being Lee's only published book, it led to Lee being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom of the United States for her contribution to literature in 2007.[1] Lee has also been the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, but has always declined to make a speech.

Other significant contributions of Lee include assisting her close friend, Truman Capote, in his research for the book In Cold Blood.



Early life

Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of four children of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. Her mother's maiden name was Finch.[2] Her father, a former newspaper editor and proprietor, was a lawyer who served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. As a child, Lee was a tomboy and a precocious reader, and was best friends with her schoolmate and neighbor, the young Truman Capote.

To Kill a Mockingbird

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[3]

While enrolled at Monroe County High School, Lee developed an interest in English literature. After graduating in 1944,[2] she went to the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery. Lee stood apart from the other students—she could not have cared less about fashion, makeup, or dating. Instead, she focused on her studies and on her writing. Lee was a member of the literary honor society and the glee club.

Transferring to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Lee was known for being a loner and an individualist. She did make a greater attempt at a social life there, joining a sorority for awhile. Pursuing her interest in writing, Lee contributed to the school’s newspaper and its humor magazine, the Rammer Jammer. She eventually became the editor of the Rammer Jammer.[4][5]

In her junior year, Lee was accepted into the university’s law school, which allowed students to work on law degrees while still undergraduates. The demands of her law studies forced her to leave her post as editor of the Rammer Jammer. After her first year in the law program, Lee began expressing to her family that writing—not the law—was her true calling. She went to Oxford University in England that summer as an exchange student. Returning to her law studies that fall, Lee dropped out after the first semester. She soon moved to New York City to follow her dreams to become a writer.

In 1949, a 23-year-old Lee arrived in New York City. She struggled for several years, working as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and for the British Overseas Air Corp (BOAC). While in the city, Lee was reunited with old friend Truman Capote, one of the literary rising stars of the time. She also befriended Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Brown and his wife Joy. Having written several long stories, Harper Lee located an agent in November 1956. The following month at the Browns' East 50th townhouse, she received a gift of a year's wages from them with a note: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas."[6] She quit her job and devoted herself to her craft. Within a year, she had a first draft. Working with J. B. Lippincott & Co. editor Tay Hohoff, she completed To Kill a Mockingbird in the summer of 1959. 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.


Many details of To Kill a Mockingbird are apparently autobiographical. Like Lee, the tomboy (Scout) is the daughter of a respected small-town Alabama attorney. The plot involves a legal case, the workings of which would have been familiar to Lee, who studied law. Scout's friend Dill was inspired by Lee's childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote,[7] while Lee is the model for a character in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Harper Lee has downplayed autobiographical parallels. Yet Truman Capote, mentioning the character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, described details he considered biographical: "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."[8]

After To Kill a Mockingbird

After completing To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee accompanied Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to assist him in researching what they thought would be an article on a small town's response to the murder of a farmer and his family. Capote expanded the material into his best-selling book, In Cold Blood (1966).

Since publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee has granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances, and with the exception of a few short essays, has published no further writings. She did work on a second novel—The Long Goodbye—eventually filing it away unfinished.[9] During the mid-1980s, she began a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer, but also put it aside when she was not satisfied.[9] Her withdrawal from public life prompted unfounded speculation that new publications were in the works. Similar speculation followed the American writers J. D. Salinger and Ralph Ellison.

Lee said of the 1962 Academy Award-winning screenplay adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird by Horton Foote: "I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made".[10] She also became a friend of Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, the father of the novel's narrator, Scout. She remains close to the actor's family. Peck's grandson, Harper Peck Voll, is named after her.

In June 1966, Lee was one of two persons named by President Lyndon B. Johnson to the National Council on the Arts.

Lee showed her feistiness in her 1966 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":

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board's activities, and what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

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.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.[7]

James J. Kilpatrick, then 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 the Beadle Bumble Fund to defend books as well as people. After a school board in suburban Richmond ordered school libraries to dispose of all copies of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, because the board found the book immoral, Kilpatrick wrote, "A more moral novel scarcely could be imagined". In the name of the Beadle, he then offered free copies to children who wrote in and by the end of the first week, he had given away 81 copies.[11]

When Lee attended the 1983 Alabama History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula, Alabama, she presented the essay "Romance and High Adventure."

Lee has been known to split time between an apartment in New York and her sister's home in Monroeville. She has accepted honorary degrees but has declined to make speeches. In March 2005, she 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, Lee traveled by train from Monroeville to Los Angeles in 2005 to accept the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award. She has also attended luncheons for students who have written essays based on her work, held annually at the University of Alabama.[12][13] On May 21, 2006, she accepted an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame. To honor her, the graduating seniors were given copies of Mockingbird before the ceremony and held them up when she received her degree.

On May 7, 2006, Lee wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey (published in O, The Oprah Magazine in July 2006). Lee wrote 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."[14]

While attending an August 20, 2007 ceremony inducting four members into the Alabama Academy of Honor, Lee responded to an invitation to address the audience with "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool."[15]

In a 2011 interview with the Daily Telegraph, Lee's close friend Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts said that Lee is in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss. Butts also said 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." [16]

Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient

On November 5, 2007, Lee was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush at a White House ceremony. The Presidential Medal of Freedom 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."[17][18]

Fictional portrayals

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 Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms (1995), the character of Idabell Thompkins, who was inspired by Truman Capote's memories of Harper Lee as a child, was played by Aubrey Dollar.


  • To Kill a Mockingbird. (1960) New York: J. B. Lippincott.
  • "Love—In Other Words". (April 15, 1961) Vogue, pp. 64–65
  • "Christmas to Me". (December 1961) McCall's
  • "When Children Discover America". (August 1965) McCall's
  • "Romance and High Adventure" (1983), a paper presented in Eufaula, Alabama and collected in 1985 in the anthology Clearings in the Thicket.
  • Open letter to Oprah Winfrey (July 2006), O: The Oprah Magazine


  1. ^ President Bush Honors Medal of Freedom Recipients The White House Press Release from November 5, 2007
  2. ^ a b Anderson, Nancy G. (19 March 2007). "Nelle Harper Lee". The Encyclopedia of Alabama. Auburn University at Montgomery. http://eoa.auburn.edu/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1126. Retrieved 3 November 2010. 
  3. ^ Newquist, Roy, editor (1964). Counterpoint. Chicago: Rand McNally. ISBN 1-111-80499-0. 
  4. ^ "Harper Lee Biography". Biography.com. http://www.biography.com/search/article.do?id=9377021. Retrieved 2008-09-13. 
  5. ^ Keillor, Garrison (2006-06-11). "'Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,' by Charles J. Shields: Good Scout". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/11/books/review/11keillor.html?pagewanted=print. Retrieved 2008-09-13. 
  6. ^ "Harper Lee". NNDB.com. http://www.nndb.com/people/572/000025497/. Retrieved 2007-05-07. 
  7. ^ a b Shields, Charles J. (2006). Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Henry Holt and Co.. http://books.google.com/books?id=j8cm3hxUd7MC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Mockingbird:+A+Portrait+of+Harper+Lee#v=onepage&q=&f=false. 
  8. ^ Nance, William (1970). The Worlds of Truman Capote. New York: Stein & Day. pp. 223. 
  9. ^ a b "A writer's story: The mockingbird mystery". The Independent. 2006-06-04. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/a-writers-story-the-mockingbird-mystery-480965.html. Retrieved 2008-08-03. 
  10. ^ Bellafante, Ginia (2006-01-30). "Harper Lee, Gregarious for a Day". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/30/books/30lee.html. Retrieved 2008-08-03. 
  11. ^ "Newspapers: Spoofing the Despots". Time Magazine, Time.com. Jan. 21, 1966. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,835072,00.html. Retrieved 2011-04-29. 
  12. ^ Lacher, Irene. (May 21, 2005). "Harper Lee raises her low profile for a friend." Los Angeles Times
  13. ^ Bellafante, Ginia. (January 30, 2006). "Harper Lee, Gregarious for a Day." New York Times. Books section.
  14. ^ "Harper Lee Writes Rare Item for O Magazine", The Washington Post, June 26, 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/26/AR2006062601039.html 
  15. ^ Author has her say; The Boston Globe, August 21, 2007
  16. ^ Paul Toohey (July 31, 2011), "Miss Nelle in Monroeville", The Daily Telegraph (Australia), http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/the-town-where-a-mockingbird-lives/story-fn6b3v4f-1226104905164, retrieved August 8, 2011 
  17. ^ Harper Lee given Presidential Medal of Freedom; The Birmingham News, November 5, 2007
  18. ^ Author Lee receives top US honour; BBC News Online, November 6, 2007

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