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Harper Lee

Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee, an American author who lived from April 28, 1926, to February 19, 2016, is best known for her 1960 book To Kill a Mockingbird. It became a modern American literature classic after winning the 1961 Pulitzer Prize. In 2007, Lee was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to writing, among other honors and honorary degrees. She helped Truman Capote, a personal friend of hers, with his research for the book In Cold Blood (1966). Capote served as the inspiration for To Kill a Mockingbird's, Dill Harris.

To Kill a Mockingbird's plot and characters are partially based on Lee's observations of her family and neighbors and an incident that happened in 1936 when she was ten years old, close to her hometown. Through the viewpoint of two children, the story explores the irrationality of adult attitudes regarding race and class in the Deep South of the 1930s. Racist sentiments in her Alabama birthplace of Monroeville served as inspiration. It was later discovered that Go Set a Watchman, which was written in the middle of the 1950s and first published in July 2015 as a sequel to Mockingbird, was actually an earlier version of that book.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee

In 1949, Lee relocated to New York City and began working, first as a reservation agent for an airline and subsequently in a bookstore, all the while continuing to write in her spare time. Lee discovered an agency in November 1956 after publishing a number of lengthy works; Maurice Crain would grow to be a close friend until his passing decades later. At Michael Brown's East 50th Street townhouse the following month, friends handed Lee a gift of one year's salary with the following note: "You are granted a year off work to write whatever you choose. Happy Holidays."

Like many undiscovered writers, Lee had doubts about her abilities. Regarding the transition from Watchman to Mockingbird, Lee remarked in a statement in 2015: "I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told." After a few false starts, the plot, character interactions, and fall of emphasis grew clearer. Hohoff later described the process in Lippincott's corporate history, saying: "There were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in her own vision, and with each revision, the true stature of the novel became evident." (Harper & Row bought Lippincott in 1978; it then changed its name to HarperCollins, which released Watchman in 2015). "When she disagreed with a notion, we argued it out, sometimes for hours," said Hohoff. "And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, and sometimes the conversation would open up a totally new line of reasoning."

In Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields relates how Lee once flung her manuscript out the window and into the snow before sobbing and contacting Hohoff. According to Shields' memory, Tay "told her to march outside right away and pick up the pages." In order to avoid having her first name Nelle mistaken for "Nellie," the author chose to use the name "Harper Lee" when the book was ultimately finished.

To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published on July 11, 1960, became a bestseller right away and received high praise from critics, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. Having sold more than 40 million copies, it is still a bestseller. It won the title of "Best Novel of the Century" in a Library Journal survey in 1999.

The tomboy Scout in the book, like Lee, is the daughter of a well-liked local Alabama lawyer. Lee's boyhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote, served as the inspiration for Scout's friend Dill, and Capote used Lee as the basis for a character in his 1948 book Other Voices, Other Rooms. Although the Scottsboro Boys interracial rape case from 1931 may have influenced Lee's social conscience, the storyline of Lee's book features a failed legal defence similar to one mounted by her lawyer father.

While Harper Lee downplayed any autobiographical allusions in the book, Truman Capote described details he believed to be autobiographical when referring to Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird: "I had the same man living in the house who used to throw things up in the trees in my first draught of Other Voices, Other Rooms, but I later removed that. He lived just down the road from us and was a great dude. We once went and removed those items from the trees. Everything she said about it is entirely accurate. But as you can see, I take the same idea and transform it into a gothic dream using a totally different technique."

From the time To Kill a Mockingbird was released until she died in 2016, Lee rarely agreed to invitations for interviews or public appearances. She also didn't publish anything else until 2015, with the exception of a few brief articles. She started working on a sequel, The Long Goodbye, but she eventually put it aside unfinished.

President Lyndon B. Johnson named Lee to the National Council on the Arts in January 1966. Lee was also aware that her work had sparked debate, notably among segregationists and other opponents of the civil rights movement. The Beadle Bumble fund was established by James J. Kilpatrick, editor of The Richmond News Leader, to pay fines for victims of "despots on the bench." He created the fund with reader contributions and eventually utilised it to defend both books and persons. After the Richmond school board ordered that all copies of To Kill a Mockingbird be destroyed, Kilpatrick said, "A more moral novel rarely could be imagined."

President Barack Obama bestowed the National Medal of Arts to Lee in 2010, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government for "exceptional contributions to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts." Lee filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court on May 3, 2013, to reclaim the copyright to To Kill a Mockingbird, demanding unspecified damages from her former literary agent's son-in-law and affiliated organizations. Lee said that the guy "engaged in a conspiracy to mislead" her into giving him the copyright to the book in 2007, when her hearing and eyesight were failing and she was staying in an assisted-living facility following a stroke. The lawsuit was settled in September 2013 by counsel for both parties.

Lee resolved a lawsuit against the Monroe County Heritage Museum for an undisclosed sum in February 2014. According to the lawsuit, the museum exploited her name and the title To Kill a Mockingbird to promote itself and sell souvenirs without her permission. On August 19, 2013, Lee's attorneys submitted a trademark application, which the museum opposed. On October 15, that same year, Lee's attorney filed a lawsuit, "which takes issue with the museum's website and gift store, which it accuses of 'palming off its goods,' including T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other different souvenirs with Mockingbird logos."

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee

Following an initial meeting to estimate Lee's assets in 2011, Lee's lawyer Tonja Carter re-examined Lee's safe-deposit box in 2014 and discovered the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman. She forwarded the manuscript to Lee's agent, Andrew Nurnberg, after contacting Lee and reviewing it. On February 3, 2015, HarperCollins announced the publication of Go Set a Watchman, which includes versions of many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird. According to a HarperCollins press release, the Watchman manuscript was initially assumed to be lost.

Mockingbird was originally planned to be the first book in a trilogy, according to Nurnberg: "They contemplated publishing Mockingbird first, Watchman last, and a shorter connecting novel between the two." According to Jonathan Mahler's report in The New York Times, Watchman was only ever regarded to be the initial draught of Mockingbird, making this allegation appear improbable. Evidence that the same passages appear in both volumes, often word for word, further refutes this claim.

When it was released in July 2015 as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, it sparked debate. Despite the fact that it was confirmed as a first draught of the later with numerous narrative inconsistencies, it was repackaged and presented as an entirely separate work. Scout comes as an adult from New York to visit her father in Maycomb, Alabama, some 20 years after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not all critics were critical of the sequel book's release. When Scout discovers her father is a racist, the book "makes for uncomfortable reading," according to Michiko Kakutani's Books of The Times review. While he did not entirely praise the book, Kakutani saw its release as a significant step toward understanding Lee's work.

The novel's publication (announced by Lee's lawyer) aroused questions about why Lee, who had said for 55 years that she would never write another book, would suddenly chose to publish again. The State of Alabama, through its Human Resources Department, initiated an investigation in February 2015 to determine whether Lee was competent to consent to the publication of Go Set a Watchman. The investigation determined that the charges of coercion and elder abuse were baseless, and Lee's lawyer stated that Lee was "as delighted as hell" with the publishing.

Many of Lee's friends, however, disagreed with this portrayal. A friend and former neighbour, Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, offered a quite different picture. "Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence," Alice-sister, Lee's whom she described as "gatekeeper, advisor, guardian" for most of Lee's adult life-said in her column for The Washington Post, "The Harper Lee I Knew."

She noted that Watchman was released only two and a half months after Alice's death and that all correspondence to and from Lee was routed through her new attorney. Lee was "in a wheelchair at an assisted living institution, practically deaf and blind, with a uniformed guard posted at the door," and her visitors were "limited to those on an approved list," she said.

Forensic linguistics and stylometry were used to examine the authorship of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Go Set a Watchman." The authorial fingerprints of Lee, Hohoff, and Capote were compared in a study done by three Polish academics, Micha Choiski, Maciej Edera, and Jan Rybicki, to prove that "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Go Set a Watchman" were both written by the same person. However, their research reveals that Capote may have assisted Lee in drafting the first chapters of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Fictional Representations

Catherine Keener portrayed Harper Lee in the film Capote (2005), Sandra Bullock in the film Infamous (2006), and Tracey Hoyt in the television drama Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998). Aubrey Dollar played the part of Idabel Thompkins in the 1995 adaption of Truman Capote's novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, which was inspired by Capote's childhood memories of Lee.


Lee died peacefully in her sleep on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89. She lived in Monroeville, Alabama, before her death. Her funeral was held on February 20 at Monroeville's First United Methodist Church. Wayne Flynt delivered the eulogy at the service, which was attended by close relatives and friends.

Following her death, The New York Times filed a lawsuit arguing that because Lee's will was filed in an Alabama probate court, it should be part of the public record. They claimed that wills filed in probate court are part of the public record and that Lee's should be made public. In 2018, an Alabama court revealed the will.

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