Most people only know two things about Harper Lee - she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and, until very recently, never published anything again. So who really was the person behind one of America’s greatest novels?
We love a writer shrouded in mystery. In a world saturated with celebrity authors who reveal seem to reveal all, there is something compelling about a writer who eschews fame and money for a private life. But Harper Lee was not a cipher, she was a real person. We still know little about her personal life, probably because she wanted it that way. Here is a short history of Harper Lee, one of America’s finest fiction writers.
Mockingbird was loosely based on her childhood growing up in Monroeville, Alabama. The main event in the book is based on one that occurred when she was growing up. Many of the characters in the novel are based on family and neighbours she knew, most notably Truman Capote, who spent his summers in Monroeville between the ages of eight and fourteen.
Her love of writing and literature began in high school. Her English teacher Gladys Watson became her mentor. She later went on to attend the University of Alabama, where she studied law and wrote for the school newspaper. She left before finishing her degree.
In 1954, Lee moved to New York and began writing and publishing stories on the side whilst working in a book-shop. Several years in she found an agent. Shortly after, a few of her close friends gifted her a year’s wages so she could quit her day job and write full-time.
In 1957, she submitted her early draft of Mockingbird to her publishers. At this time eyes were turning to racial relations in the South. Brown v The Board of Education (1954) had recently passed, leading to the desegregation of public schools. Her editors could see she had the makings of a true writer, although the draft was in no way fit for publication - in its early form, it resembled more of a collection of anecdotes than a narrative. With much frustration and encouragement from her agent and publisher, she continued to re-write it until it was finally ready.
She was the basis for a character in Capote’s Southern Gothic novel, Other Voices Other Rooms. Capote would also corroborate that many of the characters in Mockingbird were real people they knew growing up in Monroeville. Lee herself preferred to downplay this autobiographical aspect.
After the publication of Mockingbird, she travelled with Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to help him research the events of a gruesome small town murder case which he serialised for the New Yorker Magazine. The articles were so popular he formed it into a book, which he published in 1966. Much of the material was based on interviews with the townspeople and Lee conducted a number of the interviews herself. People warmed to her unstuffy demeanour and friendliness. Lee herself wrote two articles on the case - one published in the F.B.I.’s in-house newsletter, The Grapevine, and the other a profile of Capote for the Book of the Month Club.
Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck, 1962.
In 1960, Lee began a whirlwind of press and publicity tours as Mockingbird soared in popularity. It won numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. It was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck in 1962. This attention was at odds with her retiring personality and need for privacy, especially as many reviewers and interviewers wanted to draw on her personal connections to the story. Eventually, the amount of attention became too much for her. She changed her phone number and declined any more interviews or public appearances, preferring to socialise with her close friends in private and attend small events at the library or small gatherings back home in Monroeville.
Over the years, Mockingbird has been banned by school boards in some counties. The book has drawn the ire of segregationists and those against the Civil Rights movement. When one school district banned the book, Lee wrote to the local paper to voice her anger.
In subsequent years, it appeared that individuals were beginning to take advantage of Lee’s declining health. In 2013 and 2014, two lawsuits were settled relating to an apparent scheme to get Lee to sign over the copyright to Mockingbird, or another that claimed a Monroeville museum was using her name and the book for promotional material without her permission. In 2015, the so-called sequel to Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman, was published. The book was favourably reviewed, although the story surrounding the discovery of the manuscript - fifty-five years after the publishing of Mockingbird - raised some questions about Lee’s own involvement in the publishing. In 2007 she had suffered a stroke and since 2011 she had been in an assisted living facility, partially deaf and blind. The murmurings became loud enough that the publication was investigated by the Human Resources Department of Alabama for supposed elder abuse. The claims were found to be unfounded, although this was contested strongly by some of her close friends. Lee’s sister Alice was her lawyer and the “gatekeeper” for her estate, and she had died just two months before the publication.
Whatever the truth is about the publication, Lee herself clearly preferred a quiet life. As we know now how toxic and corrosive fame can be to a person’s soul, the mystery of why Lee only published just one - or maybe two - books in her lifetime suddenly doesn’t seem so mysterious. In one of her final interviews, she clearly expressed why she did not publish anything after Mockingbird. In a 2011 interview for an Australian newspaper, she said: “Two reasons: one, 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.”
Some inspirational quotes from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird...