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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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