Nelle Lee Harper
"Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what."
Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016), better known by her pen name Harper Lee, was an American novelist widely known for To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. Immediately successful, it won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and has become a classic of modern American literature. Though Lee had only published this single book, in 2007 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature. Additionally, Lee received numerous honorary degrees, though she declined to speak on those occasions. She was also known for assisting her close friend Truman Capote in his research for the book In Cold Blood (1966). Capote was the basis for the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The plot and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird are loosely based on Lee’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old. The novel deals with the irrationality of adult attitudes towards race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s, as depicted through the eyes of two children. The novel was inspired by racist attitudes in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
Another novel, Go Set a Watchman, was written in the mid-1950s and published in July 2015 as a “sequel”, though it was later confirmed to be To Kill a Mockingbird’s first draft.
Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama where she grew up as the youngest of four children of Frances Cunningham (Finch) and Amasa Coleman Lee. Her first name, Nelle, was her grandmother’s name spelled backwards and the name she used; Harper Lee being primarily her pen name. Lee’s mother was a homemaker; her father, a former newspaper editor and proprietor, practiced law and served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. Before A.C. Lee became a title lawyer, he once defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Both clients, a father and son, were hanged. Lee had three siblings: Alice Finch Lee (1911–2014), Louise Lee Conner (1916–2009), and Edwin Lee (1920–1951).
While enrolled at Monroe County High School, Lee developed an interest in English literature. After graduating from high school in 1944, she attended the then all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery for a year, then transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she studied law for several years and wrote for the university newspaper, but did not complete a degree. In the summer of 1948, Lee attended a summer school in European civilization at Oxford University in England, financed by her father, who hoped – in vain, as it turned out – that the experience would make her more interested in her legal studies in Tuscaloosa.
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.
In the spring of 1957, a 31-year-old Lee delivered the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman to her agent to send out to publishers, including the now-defunct J. B. Lippincott Company, which eventually bought it. At Lippincott, the novel fell into the hands of Therese von Hohoff Torrey—known professionally as Tay Hohoff. Ms. Hohoff was impressed. “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line”, she would later recount in a corporate history of Lippincott. But as Ms. Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”. During the next couple of years, she led Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled To Kill a Mockingbird.
Like many unpublished authors, Ms. Lee was unsure of her talents. “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” Ms. Lee said in a statement in 2015 about the evolution from Watchman to Mockingbird. Ms. Hohoff offers a more detailed characterization of the process in the Lippincott corporate history: “After a couple of false starts, the story-line, interplay of characters, and fall of emphasis grew clearer, and with each revision — there were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in her own vision of it — the true stature of the novel became evident.” (In 1978, Lippincott was acquired by Harper & Row, which became HarperCollins, publisher of Watchman.)
There appeared to be a natural give and take between author and editor. “When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours,” Ms. Hohoff wrote. “And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of country.”
As for her relationship with Ms. Lee, it’s clear that Ms. Hohoff provided more than just editorial guidance. One winter night, as Charles J. Shields recounts in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Ms. Lee threw her manuscript out her window and into the snow, before calling Ms. Hohoff in tears. “Tay told her to march outside immediately and pick up the pages,” Mr. Shields writes.
When the novel was finally ready, the author opted to use the name “Harper Lee”, rather than risk having her first name Nelle be misidentified as “Nellie”.
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.
Autobiographical details in the novel
Like Lee, the tomboy Scout of the novel is the daughter of a respected small-town Alabama attorney. Scout’s friend, Dill, was inspired by Lee’s childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote;[ Lee, in turn, is the model for a character in Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948. Although the plot of Lee’s novel involves an unsuccessful legal defense similar to one undertaken by her attorney father, the 1931 landmark Scottsboro Boys interracial rape case may also have helped to shape Lee’s social conscience.
While Lee herself downplayed autobiographical parallels in the book, Truman Capote, mentioning the character Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, described details he considered autobiographical: “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.”