American novelist Harper Lee became a literary icon with the success of her Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird.
This timeless work has had a lasting impact on literature, addressing themes of racial injustice, moral growth, and empathy. Drawing inspiration from her own experiences and observations during her formative years in the racially charged South, Lee’s narrative continues to resonate with readers from all walks of life.
Despite the novel’s critical acclaim, the notoriously witty Lee chose to avoid the limelight, making her a mysterious figure. Here we explore 10 facts about this enigmatic author.
1. Her full name was Nelle Harper Lee
Nelle Harper Lee, known as Harper Lee, was born on 28 April 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of 4 children. Her mother was Frances Cunningham Finch Lee, and her father, Amasa Coleman Lee was a lawyer and newspaper editor. (Through her father, she was distantly related to Confederate General Robert E Lee.)
Nelle was her grandmother’s name, Ellen, spelled backward. When pursuing her writing career, Harper Lee dropped her first name as she didn’t want people misprinting or mispronouncing it as “Nellie”.
2. She was friends with Truman Capote
Lee shared a close and lasting friendship with Truman Capote, the acclaimed author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The two had been childhood friends in Monroeville, and Lee protected Capote from neighbourhood bullies. In the 1930s, Lee’s father defended two African American men accused of murdering a white storekeeper, and Capote accompanied Lee to the trials. (Both clients, a father and son, were later hanged.) These experiences greatly influenced Lee and Capote’s literary works.
Capote served as the inspiration for the character of Dill in Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – similarly, Capote also used Lee as an inspiration for the character Idabel Tompkins in his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Their friendship endured for decades, and Lee even assisted Capote with research for his novel In Cold Blood, accompanying him to Kansas several times to help his investigative work surrounding the Clutter family murders. In 1960, Lee wrote her own account of the crime, which formed the centrepiece of Capote’s book, and also profiled the investigator of the case for Grapevine, though without a byline to avoid detracting from her friend’s work. Their relationship soured after Capote didn’t credit Lee to her liking.
3. Lee quit law to pursue writing
Initially Lee intended to follow in her father’s footsteps and practice law, attending law school at the University of Alabama. However, her love for British literature sparked a half-jovial desire to be “the Jane Austen of South Alabama”. After attending Oxford University in the summer of 1948 as an exchange student studying 20th century literature, Lee’s affection for literature deepened.
Six months before she was due to graduate, Lee quit law school and moved to New York in 1949 to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.
4. She worked as an airline ticket clerk while writing her first novel
Lee worked on her draft manuscript amongst other projects while supporting herself as a ticket reservation agent for Eastern Air Lines and British Overseas Airways.
After publishing several long stories, Lee found an agent, Maurice Crain, in November 1956. Incredibly supportive of her writing endeavours, her friends Michael and Joy Brown later gifted her a year’s wages as a Christmas present – giving Lee the opportunity to dedicate herself fully to writing.
5. Her most famous work is To Kill a Mockingbird
Published on 11 July 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate bestseller.
Harper Lee’s writing was heavily influenced by her childhood experiences in Monroeville, where she witnessed economic hardships and racial tensions during the Great Depression which deeply influenced her understanding of social inequality. The town served as the inspiration for the fictional town of Maycomb in her novel, as did her shared childhood adventures with Truman Capote, which inspired the camaraderie portrayed between characters Scout, Jem, and Dill.
Lee’s empathy and keen observational skills also enabled her to craft authentic and multi-dimensional characters who resonated with readers from diverse backgrounds.
Another significant influence on Lee was her high school English teacher, Gladys Watson, who had introduced Lee to British literature. Just before sending the final draft of To Kill a Mockingbird to her publishers, Lee sought Watson’s feedback. To thank her, Lee later flew Watson to New York for a visit and took her on a month-long trip to England.
6. To Kill a Mockingbird addressed racial issues in Alabama in the 1930s
To Kill a Mockingbird instantly became a literary classic, exploring themes of racial injustice and moral growth in the American South. Inspired by Harper Lee’s childhood observations of her father’s principled stand during the racially charged trial in Monroeville, the iconic character of Atticus Finch – a principled lawyer defending a black man accused of raping a white woman – became a symbol of integrity and social justice.
The book’s publication in 1960 also coincided with the height of the Civil Rights Movement, making its portrayal of racial injustice especially poignant. It struck a chord with the public, fostering empathy and understanding among people of different backgrounds, and emphasising the significance of tolerance and compassion in society. The novel also contributed to discussions on civil rights, racial equality, and the need for social change, solidifying Lee as one of America’s most influential literary figures.
7. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best-selling books of all time, despite complaints
Lee’s novel sold over 40 million copies worldwide and received widespread critical acclaim, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961.
Its compelling portrayal of childhood, moral dilemmas, and social issues made the book a staple in school curriculums. Its success was further amplified through the 1962 film adaptation, which also received critical acclaim and won 3 Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck, who portrayed Atticus Finch.
Whilst the book quickly became a literary classic, it repeatedly received complaints regarding its language and subject matter. In 1966, it was even banned by the Hanover Country School Board in Richmond, Virginia, who described it as “immoral literature”, although they later reversed their decision.
Harper Lee received numerous other accolades and honours. She was also presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2007 for her contribution to literature, and in 2010, was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.
8. She avoided the public eye
Whilst her novel propelled her to fame, Lee avoided the limelight and led a private and frugal life, seldom making public appearances or giving interviews which added to her mystique.
While living part-time in New York City for 40 years, Lee became an avid fan of the Mets baseball team. Even after returning to Monroeville, she continued to visit New York City to attend games and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lee was also an avid golfer, once saying that she did her best creative thinking while playing golf.
9. Harper Lee’s second book was published when she was aged 89
It was assumed that To Kill a Mockingbird would be Lee’s only published novel – indeed for 55 years Lee maintained that she would never write another book, and although she had worked on other manuscripts and a second novel, nothing was released.
However, readers were shocked when HarperCollins announced Lee had agreed to publish her to rework her earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird – Go Set a Watchman (that featured the same characters but in later life) in 2015.
It caused a sensation, becoming an instant bestseller, yet its release was highly controversial, not only regarding its depiction of Atticus Finch as a racist, but around the circumstances of its publication. Questions were raised over whether Lee genuinely consented to its publication or if she had been coerced (due to her increasing physical and mental frailty). While Lee’s lawyer claimed she had approved publication, many of her friends disputed this.
10. She was one of the most influential and celebrated authors of the 20th century
Harper Lee died aged 89 on 19 February 2016, although her timeless novel remains a cornerstone of American literature, captivating and inspiring readers worldwide.
The book’s powerful narrative addressing racial injustice and moral courage continues to resonate, influencing numerous writers, activists, and readers, and sparking crucial conversations on race, empathy, and social issues. The character of Atticus Finch has also become an emblem of moral integrity and social justice, motivating generations to take a stand against injustice.