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All About Harper Lee

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Harper Lee

Harper Lee, 1960

Photo Getty Images / Hulton Archive

Harper Lee, Obscurity over Fame:

Like J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee produced a classic work of American fiction and then vanished from the literary scene. To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant success when it appeared in 1960, lingering on the best-seller list for 88 weeks and collecting a Pulitzer Prize. But despite her professed aspiration to become the "Jane Austen of Alabama," she published only a handful of articles and no other novels. Though many assume she has died, she continues to live a quiet life in her hometown, Monroeville, AL.

Why Did Harper Lee Disappear?:

The author did offer some clue as to why she retreated from the limelight after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. In a 1964 interview, she said, "I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement . . . I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

Harper Lee's Early Years and Education:

Born Nelle Harper Lee in 1926, the future author grew up in Depression-era Alabama, the youngest of Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Finch Lee's four children. Her father, a lawyer, is said to be the model for To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus, and her neighbor and childhood friend Truman Capote inspired the character Dill. Lee studied at Huntington College and a year abroad at Oxford before studying law at the University of Alabama. However, she dropped out of her third year of law school to move to New York, where she worked as an airline reservations clerk and wrote.

To Kill a Mockingbird:

Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, basing the book on her childhood memories, and incorporating the Scottsboro trials, which took place when she was a girl. In 1962 it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Gregory Peck. Today it is still required reading in many American high schools, especially in the Deep South.

Interesting Facts:

  • Supposedly Truman Capote based the character of Idabel in Other Voices, Other Rooms on Lee.
  • Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote to help collect material for In Cold Blood. (Some critics question whether or not her name should also be on the book.)
  • Because she writes so slowly, Lee has referred to herself as "more a rewriter than a writer."
  • Her last published work was "A Letter from Harper Lee" in a 2006 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine.
  • Lee is reportedly working on her memoirs.

Harper Lee on Books and Writing:

  • "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it."
    --"A Letter from Harper Lee" in O: The Oprah Magazine (2006).
  • "More than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer. There are people who write, but I think they're quite different from people who must write."
    --"Interview with Harper Lee" by Roy Newquist (1964).
  • "There's no substitute for the love of language, for the beauty of an English sentence. There's no substitute for struggling, if a struggle is needed, to make an English sentence as beautiful as it should be."
    --"Interview with Harper Lee," Newquist.
  • "You must come to terms with yourself about your writing. You must not write 'for' something; you must not write with definite hopes of reward."
    --"Interview with Harper Lee," Newquist.
  • "Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself. He writes not to communicate with other people, but to communicate more assuredly with himself. It's a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent."
    --"Interview with Harper Lee," Newquist.
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