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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Harper Lee, Author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”

April 28, 2010
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
Harper Lee’s only novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, a staple of high school and college reading lists, and the favorite of millions of readers. Lee, however, chose privacy over fame, and has spent most of her life out of the public eye.

Harper Lee’s Early Days

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, a small town in Alabama. Her father was a lawyer and one of the owners of the local newspaper. Her mother suffered from mental illness, possibly bipolar disorder, and rarely left the house.

Lee grew up as a tomboy, developing an early friendship with Truman Persons, later known as Truman Capote. Her interest in literature developed during her high school years and continued throughout her time at Huntingdon College, an all-girls school in Montgomery.

According to The Biography Channel, “Lee stood apart from the other students—she could have cared less about fashion, makeup, or dating. Instead, she focused on her studies and on her writing.”

After spending a year at Huntingdon, Lee transferred to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where she became the editor of Rammer Jammer, the school’s newspaper and humor magazine.

She also followed a parallel law track and participated in an exchange program with Oxford University. Before finishing her degree, however, Lee dropped out of school and moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.

Lee’s Notable Accomplishments

In New York, Lee started out working as an airline ticket agent, but the financial help of friends soon allowed her to focus entirely on her writing. In the mid 1950s, she began transforming a collection of short stories into what would be her only novel. With the help of an editor, she completed the manuscript and published “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1960.

The novel revolves around the issues of social justice and racial tolerance. Many parallels have been drawn between the characters and setting of the novel and that of Lee’s own childhood: Lee’s father was a lawyer, just like the character Atticus Finch, and her native town of Monroeville resembles the novel’s fictional Maycomb. Lee, however, explained that the novel did not attempt to replicate her own childhood experiences. “People are people anywhere you put them,” she said in an interview in 1961.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. The book has sold more than ten million copies since it was first published, in spite of the mixed criticism with which it was originally received. SparkNotes reports that “a number of critics found the narrative voice of a nine-year-old girl unconvincing and called the novel overly moralistic.”

Nevertheless, the book became a popular success. Two years after it was originally published, the novel was translated into a film, earning its starring actor, Gregory Peck, an Academy Award for his role as Atticus Finch, as well as awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction.

The Rest of the Story

After her tremendous success, Lee chose to retire from the public eye and avoid personal interviews. She declined to write the screenplay for the film version of her novel and ceased publishing. Why? According to a 2006 New York Times article, “‘When you're at the top, there's only one way to go,’ she once said to a cousin. ‘I said what I had to say,’ she told a bookseller in 2000.”

As Charles J. Shields, a former schoolteacher and author of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” notes, "In our era of relentless and often prurient self-exposure by some approval-hungry personalities, Lee prefers self-respect." In spite of her very private life, Shields notes that Lee, now 83 years old, “lives a normal life, replete with community activities, many related to her church."

In 2006, Lee uncharacteristically published a letter for Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, “O,” on reading as a child in her rural Alabama town. In the letter, she reminisced about the lack of books in her hometown during the 1930s. “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,” she wrote.

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