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Harper Lee's life and career was largely defined by a single work about childhood - the 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. She too spent most of her days in seclusion after the burst of acclaim that followed its publication, though from time to time, Lee emerged from her Alabama home to claim an award or tribute from an adoring public that gleaned so much about faith, family, the nature of hate and redemption, and ultimately, about life itself from her legendary book's pages. That adoration made it difficult for Lee to successfully produce a follow-up to Mockingbird, though her collaboration with childhood friend Truman Capote yielded another great work, 1966's In Cold Blood. Still, it was Mockingbird that summed up Lee for the world, and the greatness of the book ensured that her career, however brief, was as important and storied as the most prolific and accomplished of writers. Indeed, the 2015 release of another novel by Lee, Go Set A Watchman, was shrouded in controversy over whether Lee, 89 years old and known to be in poor health, had authorized its release. Nelle Harper Lee died in her sleep in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, on February 19, 2016.The youngest of four children by...
Harper Lee's life and career was largely defined by a single work about childhood - the 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. She too spent most of her days in seclusion after the burst of acclaim that followed its publication, though from time to time, Lee emerged from her Alabama home to claim an award or tribute from an adoring public that gleaned so much about faith, family, the nature of hate and redemption, and ultimately, about life itself from her legendary book's pages. That adoration made it difficult for Lee to successfully produce a follow-up to Mockingbird, though her collaboration with childhood friend Truman Capote yielded another great work, 1966's In Cold Blood. Still, it was Mockingbird that summed up Lee for the world, and the greatness of the book ensured that her career, however brief, was as important and storied as the most prolific and accomplished of writers. Indeed, the 2015 release of another novel by Lee, Go Set A Watchman, was shrouded in controversy over whether Lee, 89 years old and known to be in poor health, had authorized its release. Nelle Harper Lee died in her sleep in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, on February 19, 2016.
The youngest of four children by newspaper editor-turned-lawyer, Amasa Coleman Lee, and homemaker, Francis Cunningham, Nelle Harper Lee was born April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, AL. A voracious reader with a vivid imagination, she spent her free time playing with her brother, two sisters, and a frequent summer visitor to Monroeville named Truman Capote. Though Lee would deny the strong parallels between To Kill a Mockingbird and her own childhood, Capote was clearly the model for the character of Dill, while her father was unquestionably the inspiration for the novel's hero, lawyer Atticus Finch. In interviews about his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms - which featured a tomboyish character named Idabel Thompkins that was based on Lee - Capote confirmed that Boo Radley, Mockingbird's haunting hermit figure, was also a real person.
Lee developed an interest in writing while attending grammar and high school in Monroeville, and continued to pursue it while attending Huntington College, a women's school in Montgomery, in 1945. That same year, she transferred to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa with the intent of earning a degree in law, but left the school in 1949 without completing her studies. She did, however, contribute numerous essays and stories for the school newspaper, and served as the editor for its humor magazine. Lee then studied at Oxford University for a year before heading for New York City, where she paid her bills as a reservation agent for Eastern Air Lines while writing stories in her free time. In December 1956, she began in earnest on the novel that would become To Kill a Mockingbird; as detailed in her short story, "Christmas to Me," a pair of friends gave her a year's wages for the holiday so that she could devote her time to her writing. By 1957, she had completed the first draft. How Mockingbird came to fruition was an issue of some debate; varying sources indicated that she either adapted some of her short stories into long form at the advice of her agent, or that Tay Hohoff, her editor at J.B. Lippincott & Co., helped her with a number of drafts submitted between 1957 and 1959. The period was a difficult one for Lee, who lost both her mother and her brother during these years, but in 1960, the novel she referred to as The Bird was published to near-universal acclaim.
Mockingbird struck a chord with readers on many levels; its story of Southerners standing up to racial prejudice had resonance in 1960, when the civil rights movement was in its infancy. Its longing for the simplicity of childhood, as well as the adult lessons learned by its narrator, Scout Finch, also carried considerable weight with readers both young and old. Lee's skill at depicting both subjects in the same work with honesty and clarity impressed many critics; most were amazed that this was her debut novel. By 1962, Mockingbird had collected some of the most prestigious awards in fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize, the "Bestsellers" Paperback of the Year Award, and a Literary Guild selection. That same year, Lee saw her book turned into a Hollywood feature that, like its source material, became an instant classic. Playwright Horton Foote provided the screenplay for Robert Mulligan's film, which starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and local actors Mary Badham and Philip Alford as Scout and her brother, Jem. Both Peck and Foote won Oscars for their extraordinary work. Badham - who had never acted before - gave one of the most memorable performances given by a child in the history of the medium. Lee herself was immensely pleased with the final result, and remained a close friend of Peck and his family for decades after its release.
Shortly after completing Mockingbird, Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas to assist him on what both believed to be a magazine article about the murder of a family in a small town. Both soon discovered that the subject was much darker and substantive than they first imagined; with Lee's considerable help as researcher and interviewer, Capote released what would eventually become In Cold Blood (1966), which he dedicated to her. The acknowledgement appeared to displease Lee, as she and Capote had a falling-out after the book's publication that endured even after his death in 1984. Ironically, the fact that she appeared to have a greater hand in the creation of Cold Blood than imagined was overshadowed by persistent rumors that Capote had actually written Mockingbird.
From the mid-1960s onward, Lee published remarkably few works; there were occasional essays in women's magazines like McCall's and Vogue, but no longer works of fiction or non-fiction. A second book, The Long Goodbye, was never completed; in the few interviews she granted during this period, she indicated that the constant attention showered upon her in the wake of Mockingbird - which included numerous personal appearances and an appointment to the National Council of the Arts in 1966 - prevented her from making much progress on her writing. Her work rarely progressed beyond a few pages; more often than not, Lee found herself writing and rewriting the same passages over and over before abandoning them. She found solace in golfing, visiting coffee shops, attending church and mostly reading. Her time was largely spent in a home she shared with her sister in Monroeville, with occasional trips to New York City, where she lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment. In the 1980s, Lee appeared to be working on a Cold Blood-style novel about an Alabama preacher under investigation for multiple murders. She spent more than a year on the project, yet no book ever surfaced. Meanwhile, the legacy of Mockingbird endured; translated into 30 languages, it became a staple of most children's educational experience, and received numerous tributes and analyses from scholars and writers worldwide. Over 30 million copies were sold.
Lee made rare public appearances on several occasions in the early 21st century. In 2005, she made her first trip to Philadelphia since 1960 to accept the ATTY Award for positive depictions of attorneys in the arts. That same year, she traveled by train at the urging of Gregory Peck's widow, Veronique, to receive the Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award. The following year, she surfaced twice - once, to accept an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, and later, via a letter to Oprah Winfrey's O: The Oprah Magazine, which discussed her love of books in the age of iPods and laptop computers. In 2007, she received the highest merit bestowed upon a writer: induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. That same year, President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to the arts. Around this same time, Lee was portrayed in quick succession in two major feature films and television movies about her late writer friend; Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock played her in "Capote" (2005) and "Infamous" (2006), respectively, both of which depicted her work with Capote on In Cold Blood.
In 2015, it was announced that a "new" novel by Lee had been discovered and would be published. It was soon established that the book in question, Go Set A Watchman, was not in fact a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, but a rejected first draft of the story that brought the tale of Scout and Atticus Finch into the early days of the Civil Rights Era. The book was published shortly after the death of Lee's older sister Alice, who for years had served as her literary executor and personal lawyer; some literary observers raised doubts that Lee, who at the time was reportedly blind, near deaf, and residing in an assisted living facility, had approved its publication. Although the novel was marketed as a major literary event, it received uniformly negative reviews from critics and was received with shock and disappointment by Mockingbird fans who learned that an aging Atticus Finch had become a racist anti-integrationist. Less than a year after the novel's publication, Nelle Harper Lee died in her sleep in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. She was 89 years old.
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