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Harper Lee

Harper Lee Harper Lee[1†]

Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was an American novelist from Monroeville, Alabama. She gained renown for her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a poignant portrayal of racism in the Deep South. Influenced by her upbringing, Lee's work drew from personal observations and childhood experiences. Lee's literary contributions earned her accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, recognizing her significant impact on American literature[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama[1†]. She was the youngest of four children of Frances Cunningham (née Finch) and Amasa Coleman Lee[1†]. Her parents chose her middle name, Harper, to honor pediatrician Dr. William W. Harper, of Selma, who had saved the life of her sister Louise[1†]. Her first name, Nelle, was her grandmother’s name spelled backwards and the name she used[1†].

Lee’s father was a former newspaper editor, businessman, and lawyer, who also served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938[1†]. Through her father, she was related to Confederate General Robert E. Lee and a member of the prominent Lee family[1†]. Before A.C. Lee became a title lawyer, he once defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Both clients, a father and son, were hanged[1†].

As a child, Lee was a tomboy and a precocious reader[1†][3†]. She attended public school in Monroeville[1†][3†] and developed an interest in English during high school because of an excellent and inspiring English teacher[1†]. After graduating high school in 1944[1†], she attended Huntingdon College, a private school for women in Montgomery for a year[1†][3†]. She then transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she studied law for several years[1†][2†][1†]. She also spent a summer as an exchange student at the University of Oxford[1†][2†]. However, she left for New York City without earning a degree[1†][2†][1†].

In New York, she worked as an airline reservationist but soon received financial aid from friends that allowed her to write full-time[1†][2†].

Career Development and Achievements

Harper Lee’s career began in New York City, where she worked as an airline reservationist[2†]. However, with the financial aid from friends, she was able to write full-time[2†]. During this time, she transformed a series of short stories into her first novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird"[2†].

Published in 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird” quickly became a sensation[2†][4†]. The novel is told predominantly from the perspective of a young girl, Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, who ages from six to nine years old during the course of the novel[2†]. The story deals with racial justice and open-mindedness, as depicted through the eyes of Scout and her brother, Jem[2†]. The novel received a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide[2†].

In addition to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Lee also wrote “Go Set a Watchman” (2015), which was essentially a sequel to “Mockingbird”, though it was written before that book[2†]. The novel was published as a sequel in July 2015[2†].

Lee also assisted her close friend Truman Capote in his research for the book “In Cold Blood” (1966)[2†]. This collaboration further established her reputation in the literary world[2†].

Throughout her career, Lee received numerous accolades and honorary degrees. In 1999, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by Library Journal[2†][5†]. In 2007, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature[2†][5†].

Despite her success, Lee was known to be private and rarely made public appearances[2†][4†]. She preferred to let her work speak for itself[2†][4†].

First Publication of Her Main Works

Harper Lee’s literary career is primarily defined by two novels: “To Kill a Mockingbird” and "Go Set a Watchman"[2†][1†].

In addition to her novels, Lee also wrote several literary articles[2†]. Some of them include:

Each of these works provides a unique perspective on American life and culture, further establishing Lee’s legacy as a significant figure in American literature[2†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Harper Lee’s work, particularly “To Kill a Mockingbird”, has been subject to extensive analysis and evaluation[6†][7†]. The novel is praised for its sensitive treatment of a child’s awakening to racism and prejudice in the American South[6†][7†]. It has been translated into some 40 languages, sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, and is one of the most-assigned novels in American schools[6†][7†].

The novel’s narration style, which is retrospective, has been a topic of discussion among critics[6†]. This style allows for a mature reflection on the events of the story, although some critics argue that certain qualities are lost in this type of narration[6†]. The character development, particularly of Boo Radley, and the principles of plot construction in the novel have also been praised[6†].

Lee’s ability to create humor and humanity in the text has been noted, contributing to the novel’s enduring value and popularity[6†]. According to a survey conducted in 1991 by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was found to be the book “most often cited as making a difference in people’s lives”, second only to the Bible[6†].

The novel’s impact extends beyond literature. A motion-picture adaptation of the novel, starring Gregory Peck, was released in 1962 and won several Academy Awards[6†]. A stage version of the novel, titled “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: A Full-Length Play”, was also published and performed professionally on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1980s and 1990s[6†].

In conclusion, Harper Lee’s work, especially “To Kill a Mockingbird”, has had a profound impact on American literature and culture. Her sensitive portrayal of racial tensions and childhood innocence in the American South continues to resonate with readers worldwide[6†][7†].

Personal Life

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama[1†]. She was the youngest of four children of Frances Cunningham (née Finch) and Amasa Coleman Lee[1†]. Her parents chose her middle name, Harper, to honor pediatrician Dr. William W. Harper, of Selma, who had saved the life of her sister Louise[1†]. Her first name, Nelle, was her grandmother’s name spelled backwards and the name she used[1†], whereas Harper Lee was primarily her pen name[1†].

Lee’s mother was a homemaker; her father was a former newspaper editor, businessman, and lawyer, who also served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938[1†]. Through her father, she was related to Confederate General Robert E. Lee and a member of the prominent Lee family[1†]. Lee’s three siblings were Alice Finch Lee (1911–2014), Louise Lee Conner (1916–2009), and Edwin Lee (1920–1951)[1†].

Although Nelle remained in contact with her significantly older sisters throughout their lives, only her brother was close enough in age to play with[1†]. She bonded with Truman Capote (1924–1984), who visited family in Monroeville during the summers from 1928 until 1934[1†].

Lee was socially awkward and cripplingly shy[1†]. With no diaries or love letters revealing her romantic interests, we have no record[1†]. However, the story of Lee’s unrequited crush on married literary agent Maurice Crain, who encouraged her to try writing a novel after reading several of her short stories, is all we have[1†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Harper Lee’s legacy is one of profound impact and enduring influence. Her debut novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, has become a cornerstone of American literature, read and loved by generations[8†]. Published in 1960, the novel challenged societal norms and heightened public scrutiny on the shameful institutions of racism and segregation[8†][9†]. It has sold more than 30 million copies in 40 languages and won the Pulitzer Prize a year later[8†].

Lee’s work is an enduring testament to the potential books have to challenge ways of thinking and change societal norms[8†][9†]. Her novel presents a difficult subject of race with charm and innocence, making the investigation acceptable and beguiling[8†]. The precision and poetic passages about small-town life in her book ring completely true[8†].

In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom in honor of her timeless, singular contribution to American literature[8†][10†]. He praised “To Kill a Mockingbird” as “a gift to the entire world” that "influenced the entire character of our country for the better"[8†][10†].

Despite the fame and success of her work, Lee chose a life of privacy. After the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, she largely let the Pulitzer Prize-winning work speak for itself[8†][11†]. She lived quietly most of her life in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama[8†].

Harper Lee passed away in her sleep on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89[8†]. Her legacy continues to live on through her work, influencing and inspiring readers around the world[8†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Harper Lee [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Harper Lee: American writer [website] - link
  3. Chicago Public Library - Harper Lee Biography [website] - link
  4. Smithsonian Magazine - Harper Lee’s Novel Achievement [website] - link
  5. National Book Foundation - Harper Lee [website] - link
  6. eNotes - Harper Lee Analysis [website] - link
  7. Britannica - To Kill a Mockingbird: novel by Lee [website] - link
  8. PBS NewsHour - Remembering the life and legacy of Harper Lee [website] - link
  9. To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee’s Legacy: How We Can Still Learn from To Kill a Mockingbird [website] - link
  10. The Week - Harper Lee's singular legacy [website] - link
  11. Today - Harper Lee dies at 89: A quiet life, a lasting legacy — see the photos [website] - link
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