Harper Lee published only two books, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, but she is one of America’s most beloved female authors.
- Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of four children.
- Her mother was a homemaker, her father, a newspaperman, editor, and lawyer.
- Harper was much younger than her two older sisters were. Her brother Edwin was her playmate.
- She became interested in English during high school because of an excellent and inspiring English teacher.
- She studied law at the University of Alabama, but left a few credits shy of graduation, much to her father’s disappointment.
- She moved to New York, where she worked in a bookstore and as an airline flight reservation agent. She wrote stories in her spare time and found a literary agent, Maurice Crain, in 1956. She and Maurice became lifelong friends.
- That same year, her friends in New York pulled their money together and gave her a Christmas gift of a year’s salary. They told her to take time off from her job to write her book.
- In 1957, Harper sent her book Go Set a Watchman to several publishers. Tay Hohoff, an editor at Lippincott, saw the signs of a genius writer in the book, but she knew it needed work before it could be published.
- She worked with Harper for more than two years refining the story. This process involved many hours-long discussions. At one point, Harper threw the story out her bedroom window into the snow and tearfully called Tay to tell her she was through. The editor told her to dry her tears and go pick up the papers.
- Published in 1960, the book became an instant bestseller. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961; in 1999, it was voted Best Novel of the Century in a poll by the Library Journal. More than 30 million copies of the book have been printed.
- Harper’s book was based, in part, on events from her childhood. Dill, a main character in the story, is based on real-life friend and author, Truman Capote. Harper was a tomboy just like Scout. Her father defended two black men accused of killing a white storekeeper. Both men were hung.
- Some people didn’t like the book because it discussed hard topics like racism. A few even tried to ban it from libraries, calling the book immoral.
- Harper became an instant celebrity, a hard thing for someone who preferred privacy and quiet. She received more than 60 letters a day and was constantly asked to make public appearances. She was a shy person who didn’t like speaking in public. She even refused to speak when she was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor. She said, “Better to be silent than to be a fool.”
- President George W. Bush honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007; in 2010, President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.
- When asked why she never published another book, she cited two reasons: first, she didn’t want to go through the publicity and pressure again. And she had said what she wanted to say and wouldn’t say it again.
Questions and Answers
Question: Was the book ever made into a movie?
Answer: Gregory Peck starred as Atticus in the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee was very happy with the film and became close friends with the actor.
Watch a video about Harper Lee.