27th Apr 2012
Bookish Birthdays: Harper Lee
Her father, A.C. Lee, was a lawyer and newspaper editor.
A clever child, Nelle befriended Truman Capote, a neighbour. She and Truman loved to read, and when her father gave them a typewriter, they began writing stories.
In 1944, Nelle enrolled at the all-female Huntingdon College in nearby Montgomery.
She later transferred to the University of Alabama and became editor of the college newspaper, Rammer Jammer, contributing stories, poems and a personal column.
Stepping down from Rammer Jammer in 1946, Nelle bowed to her father’s wishes and began studying law.
But within a year, she had decided to drop out. Her family were shocked when she moved to New York, where Truman Capote was basking in critical acclaim. (His début novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, included a character based on Nelle.)
For several years, Nelle scraped by in office jobs, writing in her spare time. In 1956, she was signed up by a literary agent, Maurice Crain.
That Christmas, Nelle’s composer friend, Michael Brown, and his wife, Joy, gave her a very special gift – they offered to pay her living expenses for a year, so that she could devote herself to writing.
The result was To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of Jean Louise Finch (‘Scout’), a feisty young girl living in a small Southern town with her father, Atticus, and brother Jem in the 1930s.
Scout’s oddball friend, Dill Harris, was based on Capote. Drawing heavily on her own childhood and the people she had known, Nelle also tackled the highly sensitive issue of race.
During the late 1950s, the Civil Rights movement was gaining pace. The storyline where Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of rape may have been inspired by a similar case that occurred in Monroeville in 1933.
In recent years, there has been renewed debate about how progressive To Kill a Mockingbird actually was. The novel’s political background has sometimes overshadowed its enduring charm and humour, much of which can be found in the child’s-eye point of view.
While waiting for To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication, Nelle agreed to accompany Truman Capote on a journalistic assignment in the little-known town of Holcomb, Kansas, where the prosperous Clutter family had recently been found murdered in their home. Two drifters were later convicted of the crime.
Capote’s flamboyant manner didn’t win him many friends in the Midwest. It was Nelle’s sincerity and warmth that encouraged people to talk, most crucially Alvin Dewey, one of the detectives supervising the investigation.
She finally presented Truman with 150 pages of typed, organised notes. Some of Nelle’s own words were included, albeit slightly modified, in the book Capote later wrote about the case.
To Kill a Mockingbird, published under the name ‘Harper Lee’ in the summer of 1960, was an instant bestseller and almost universally praised (although though some Southern readers blasted its author as ‘traitorous’.) In 1961, Nelle was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and a year later, To Kill a Mockingbird became a successful film.
‘All I want to be is the Jane Austen of Alabama’, Nelle said wryly in 1964. She was appointed to the National Council on the Arts two years later. Naturally shy, Nelle found her instant fame difficult to cope with. Though she began a second novel, it was never finished.
In Cold Blood, Capote’s ground-breaking ‘non-fiction novel’ about the Clutter killings, was finally published in 1966. However, Truman neglected to acknowledge Nelle’s contribution. While this betrayal didn’t end their friendship, it would never be quite the same.
Though she kept her New York apartment, Nelle spent much of her later life in Monroeville with her sister, Alice Lee. During the 1980s, she embarked on a non-fiction crime book, but didn’t complete it.
In 2007, Harper Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom of the United States for her contribution to literature. And in March 2012, President Obama introduced a television screening to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Though she is hardly a recluse, Nelle is often thought of as one of the great puzzles of American letters. At 86, she has been the subject of books, films and documentaries, and on the strength of a single masterpiece, she has become one of the best-loved female writers of the twentieth century.