Nelle Harper Lee (1926- ) is the author of one of the most affecting and widely read books of American literature. In creating To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Lee drew deeply and essentially from her coming-of-age years in the small town of Monroeville, Monroe County, Alabama. Lee's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel explores the dimensions of prejudice, hate, loyalty, and love through the eyes of a young girl as she awakens to the complexities of human nature and its capacity for both good and evil.
Lee was born in Monroeville on April 28, 1926, the youngest child of Amasa Coleman Lee, a lawyer, and Frances Finch. She denies that the story of To Kill a Mockingbird is autobiographical, but her fiction was certainly influenced and shaped by her childhood experiences, shared with a brother and two sisters and fellow author-to-be Truman Capote, a frequent summer visitor to Monroeville. As she described this period of her life in a 1965 interview, "We had to use our own devices in our play, for our entertainment. We didn't have much money . . . . We didn't have toys, nothing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imagination most of the time. We devised things; we were readers and we would transfer everything we had seen on the printed page to the backyard in the form of high drama."
Lee attended the public grammar school and high school in Monroeville. She developed an interest in writing during her childhood and continued to write when she attended Huntingdon College (Montgomery, Alabama) from 1944 through 1945. In 1945, she transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to study law, but left in 1949 without completing her degree. While at Alabama Lee wrote columns, feature stories, and satires for the university newspaper and literary publications. In 1949 she left Alabama to pursue a literary career in New York.
Lee's first job in New York was as an airline reservations clerk. After some time and with the financial support of friends, a gift she remembers in "Christmas to Me," she was able to quit her job and write full time. Over a period of three years, interrupted by the deaths of her mother and her brother and other responsibilities, she worked on her novel. Accounts of the drafting vary from source to source: one credits an agent with the suggestions that she convert some short stories into a novel, and another describes a series of drafts submitted to her publisher between 1957 and 1959. To Kill a Mockingbird (friends say that she calls it "The Bird") was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961.
Published during the civil-rights era, which focused the eyes of the world on her home state, Lee's novel is set in the 1930s, the decade during which Alabama's infamously racist "Scottsboro Boys" case took place. In the novel, Lee relates events through her narrator, Jean Louise ("Scout") Finch. She and her brother Jem are reared by Atticus, their widowed father, and Calpurnia, the African American domestic servant whom Atticus trusts with their care while he works in his law office. Atticus's sister, Alexandria, occasionally interferes, especially after Scout starts school. In the summers, Dill (a character loosely based on Capote) visits his aunt and helps Scout and Jem invent schemes to lure an eccentric neighbor, Arthur ("Boo") Radley, from his home. The children also become embroiled in the tension and conflict that result from Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. To the children's dismay, despite convincing evidence and moving arguments, Atticus fails to secure an acquittal for Tom from the all-white, all-male jury. Later, Tom is shot in prison. Mayella's father, Bob, seeks revenge on Atticus for embarrassing his family by attacking Scout and Jem, an attack thwarted by Boo Radley that brings together the plots, and thus the themes, of the novel.
The success of To Kill a Mockingbird was so immediate that the novel's release was described as a "summer storm." Critics praised Lee for capturing the setting of a small southern town with its complex social fabric of blacks and whites of all classes, from aristocratic to hard-working middle class to "white trash." Other reviewers commented on its narrative technique, characterization, balance of humor and tragedy, use of symbolism, and careful interweaving of numerous themes, such as childhood innocence and adult perceptions, justice and injustice, racial tolerance and intolerance, and cowardice and courage, whether the physical courage of facing a lynch mob and shooting a rabid dog or the courage of standing up for one's beliefs in the face of public condemnation.
Lee won numerous awards for To Kill a Mockingbird in addition to the Pulitzer Prize: the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1961), the Alabama Library Association Award (1961), Bestsellers Paperback of the Year Award (1962), and additional designations such as a Literary Guild selection, a Reader's Digest condensed book selection, and an alternate for the Book of the Month Club. In 2002 Lee received the Alabama Humanities Award from the Alabama Humanities Foundation.
The film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, released in 1962, underscored the success of the novel with its own success. Adapted by screenwriter Horton Foote and directed by Robert Mulligan, the film stars Gregory Peck as Atticus and two Alabamians—Mary Badham and Phillip Alford—as Scout and Jem; both Peck and Foote took home Academy Awards for their work.
Harper Lee has published little since To Kill a Mockingbird other than essays in McCall's and Vogue and a lively analysis of the literary qualities of A. J. Pickett's History of Alabama, which she originally presented in 1983 and published in 1985. In 1959, after she finished To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee went to Kansas with Truman Capote to serve as his "assistant researchist" while he was working on In Cold Blood. He dedicated the book to her and credited her with "secretarial work" and with befriending some of the individuals with whom he sought interviews. Her only comment on the expedition has been that "the crime intrigued Truman, and I'm intrigued with crime, and boy, I wanted to go. It was deep calling to deep." Reports, both oral and written, persist that Harper Lee has been working for years on a project similar to Capote's In Cold Blood. Tentatively titled The Reverend, the work is about a series of unsolved murders in a small town in central Alabama.
Both the novel and film versions of To Kill a Mockingbird continue to hold the public's interest. An increasing number of scholars write about the novel, analyzing its moral, sociological,
psychological, literary, legal, and racial and gender issues and themes. Students in schools and colleges worldwide study
the novel. Large cities adopt it as the book to be read by all citizens. To Kill a Mockingbird has now sold over 30 million copies and been translated into more than 30 languages. As she said she desired, Harper Lee
left a "record" of the "rich social pattern" of small-town American life. And the wide world has more than confirmed the richness
of the literary achievement that emerged from her recognition of "something universal in this little world" she knew in southwest
Alabama. In May 2007, Harper Lee was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which is considered the nation's
highest formal recognition of artistic merit; she also was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contribution
to literature. In March 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lee—along with other artists such as Meryl Streep, James Taylor,
and Quincy Jones—the 2010 National Medal of Arts for her "outstanding contribution to the excellence, growth, support and
availability of the arts."
Works by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
"Christmas to Me" McCall's (December 1961)
"Love—In Other Words" Vogue (April 15, 1961)
"When Children Discover America" McCall's (August 1965)
"Romance and High Adventure" in Clearings in the Thicket: An Alabama Humanities Reader (1985)
"Dear Oprah...[A Letter to Oprah from Harper Lee]" O, The Oprah Magazine (July 2006
Bloom, Harold, ed. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Contemporary Literary Views Series. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.
Godfree, Elizabeth C., ed. "Special Issue: Symposium on To Kill a Mockingbird." Alabama Law Review 45 (Winter 1994): 389–727.
Johnson, Claudia Durst. To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries. Twayne's Masterwork Studies Series, no. 139. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
———. Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historic Documents. "Literature in Context" Series. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Petry, Alice Hall, ed. On Harper Lee: Essays and Reflections. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007.
Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. New York: Henry Holt, 2006.
Nancy G. Anderson
Auburn University at Montgomery
Published March 19, 2007
Last updated May 23, 2013