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February 19, 2018 Beyond The Dash

Two Years Later: Remembering Harper Lee

Two Years Later: Remembering Harper Lee
Harper Lee and President George W. Bush at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony on November 5, 2007. White House photo by Eric Draper.

Harper Lee authored the famous American mid-century novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. She passed away two years ago on this day. In her honor, we are reflecting on her life and achievments in this month's Dash from the Past feature.


Known to shy away from attention, Harper Lee was a professional pseudonym used by author Nelle Harper Lee. To all who knew her, however, she was called Nelle. 

Born April 28, 1926, in the deep south of Alabama, Lee's father was a newspaper editor, lawyer and politician. She exhibited literary talent from an early age, she was known as the neighborhood tomboy. 

Focused on her studies above all else, Lee's social life revolved around societies and clubs that allowed her to learn more about English literature. She began a demanding law program at the University of Alabama—ultimately discovering the law would not be for her. After a brief exchange to England's Oxford University, she settled in New York.

Friendship with Truman Capote

Her tomboy status as a child earned her a childhood friendship with fellow great american novelist, Truman Capote. He was an intelligent, sensitive boy who didn't fit in with his peers, and she became his defender in the schoolyard. 

"People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for."

To Kill a Mockingbird

Living in New York, Lee connected with her old childhood friend, who himself was finding early literary success in the bustling city. This would be the beginning of an important personal and working relationship, as the two went on to collaborate on numerous creative projects. 

Capote is famous for his nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, based on a real 1959 murder of a wheat farmer. He initially interviewed subjects for the book with the help of Harper Lee. Many of the research was derived from notes Lee made available to Capote. Capote's flamboyant, flashy demeanor did not always inspire trust in interview subjects, whereas Lee's easygoing, direct mannerisms kept folks at ease. She was able to open up interviewees and extract valuable stories from them. 

When the novel was finally published in 1966, Capote only mentioned Lee in the dedication—rather than frankly acknowledging her real contributions to the work—the duo had a falling out. Still, they remained close friends until Capote's death in 1984. 

Inspiration for the great American novel

In 1936, events Lee experienced in her hometown would loosely inspire the novel that would become a classroom staple and modern American classic. Like her protagonist, Scout, her father was a lawyer, and defended a black man, accused of murdering a white man, when Lee was 10 years old. 

Historic mural depicting the Harper Lee novel,

A generous gift of a year's worth of financial support allowed Lee to focus entirely on writing. She spent 1957 working on what was to become the great American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird

"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, To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

Work on To Kill a Mockingbird was finished in 1959, and the book was published the next year. 

The book reveals her observations of the racism of deep south, and the plight of black citizens to receive ordinary justice. In it, lawyer Atticus Finch struggles to defend an innocent black man against the charge of raping a white woman. 

"I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird," Harper Lee told one early interviewer. "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."

To Kill a Mockingbird earned instant critical acclaim, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Though many notable literary names of the day scoffed at Lee's book for children, the characters resonated with 1960s America. The story of Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem and Boo Radley reflected challenges of the civil rights movement at a critical time. 

To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted to film in 1962, with the lead role of Atticus Finch played by Gregory Peck. His performance earned him an Oscar, and the film also won an award for best adapted screenplay—an honor Harper Lee believed was very deserved. Lee became close with Peck after the film was made, even maintaining a relationship with his family after his death. 

Gregory Peck (lef) & James Anderson in To Kill a Mockingbird

Subsequent work

Notoriously reclusive, Harper Lee only released one other novel. Aside from infrequent essays, she maintained she would never publish another book again. She refused almost all interview requests, and for the most part avoided the limelight. 

"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."
— Harper Lee

Yet in 2015, a manuscript was discovered in a safe deposit box, entitled Go Set a Watchman. The story featured many characters from To Kill a Mockingbird. It is unclear whether this story was an earlier draft of her famous novel or a sequel—although it seems clear that this draft was ever intended to be published. 

"Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends."

— Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

Controversially, Go Set a Watchman was published posthumously as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. A lawsuit ensued, to determine whether the book was published with Harper Lee's consent, given she was suffering from memory loss in an assisted living facility, and had been adamant that no further books were to be published. The court ruled that no such abuse had occurred, and that Lee was agreeable to the book's release.

Go Set a Watchman challenged many conceptions of the original work, by depicting Atticus as a bigot—not the staunch defender of civil rights that for generations characterized Atticus Finch. 

Honors and legacy

Aside from her Pulitzer, Lee accepted honorary degrees from a variety of universities, but always shied away from the spotlight, declining to speak. When she did agree to public appearances, it was under the strict warning not to discuss To Kill a Mockingbird

"Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself...It's a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent."

— Harper Lee, 1964 interview

Go Set a Watchman won a 2005 Goodreads Choice award for best fiction, despite the controversy that surrounded publication of the book, and some unfavorable reviews.

President George W. Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to author Harper Lee during a ceremony Monday, Nov. 5, 2007, in the East Room.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, by President George W. Bush. Notably, she made the unusual move of declining to make an acceptance speech.

Dash from the Past

After suffering a stroke in 2007, she moved to an assisted living facility. The stroke caused significant damage to her vision, hearing and memory. 

Harper Lee died February 19, 2016, in Monroeville, Alabama, at the age of 89. 

"As you grow up, always tell the truth, do no harm to others, and don't think you are the most important being on earth."

— Letters of Note, 2006

Harper Lee's legacy will live on forever in high school classrooms. Her perspective informs new generations of American teenagers' civil rights education annually. For this contribution to literature, she will be forever remembered. 

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