Harper Lee was a highly successful American novelist, best known for her hugely influential novel: To Kill A Mockingbird. Today, on the anniversary of her death in 2016, we take a look at what made her novel so renowned, and a sneak peek into the life of what would eventually become the author of one of the most widely studied books of our time.
Harper Lee – The Beginning
Nelle Harper Lee was born in April of 1926, in Alabama. Harper was actually her middle name, chosen by her parents to honour the paediatrician who saved her sister’s life, whilst her first name ‘Nelle’ was her grandmother’s name spelt backwards. Whilst little is known about her early life, it is known she was a proclaimed tomboy who discovered a love of English Literature in high school.
Lee attended the University of Alabama, where she contributed to the school paper and eventually became the publication’s editor. Despite her family’s wishes for her to follow her father’s career in Law, Lee eventually admitted that legal study wasn’t her calling. She dropped out of University before moving to New York to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer.
Go Set A Watchman
Many people aren’t aware that To Kill A Mockingbird wasn’t her only, or indeed her first work. Prior to releasing this, Lee submitted a manuscript in 1957 for Go Set A Watchman. After submitting this, she was asked to approach the book with a new take. She went on to explore the character Scout’s childhood. From this, Lee went away and returned with what would eventually be her bestseller. Go Set A Watchman would later be released in 2015 to heavy scrutiny from Lee’s fans and critics.
To Kill A Mockingbird
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, the book follows the story of Scout Finch, who lives with her brother Jem and her father Atticus Finch. The story centres on Atticus Finch’s endeavours to prove the innocence of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman in 1930’s Alabama. It explores many themes, such as the contrast between good and evil, loss of childhood innocence, the importance of moral education and the significance of social class. The book was an important breakthrough for its commentary on racism; heavily praised for its treatment of Scout’s awakening to the existence of prejudice in the American South.
Is The Novel Fictional?
Whilst the book is fiction, there are key similarities between the novel and Harper Lee’s early life. Aside from being set in Alabama where she grew up, there are similarities between the protagonist and Lee herself. Furthermore, the plot and characters are based on Lee’s observations of those around her. Lee’s father was a lawyer, just like Atticus Finch in the novel. At one point he defended two black men accused of killing a white storekeeper; both of whom were later hanged. There is no doubt that Lee’s early experiences contributed to the themes and characters in the book.
What Happened After?
Following the release of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee pretty much slipped out of the limelight. It’s no surprise, really; reports suggest she’d never been one to take centre stage. Many referred to her as a recluse, with reports that she was struggling with her own demons. Following the release of her bestseller in 1960, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and the film adaption was released in 1962. Go Set A Watchman was released in 2015 to heavy criticism from fans and critics alike. Just a few months after, Harper Lee died on February 19th 2020. Her death sparked many questions as to what she’d been doing all those years.
To this day, To Kill A Mockingbird has sold over 40 million copies worldwide. 60 years on, it is still undoubtedly an incredibly moving and relevant novel. Despite being something of a mystery, there’s no doubt that Harper Lee was an extraordinary novelist who deserves to be celebrated and revered to this day.