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Harper Lee

Harper Lee standing next to two gentlemen

Who is Harper Lee?

Born into what was thought of as a mainstream Southern family on April 28, 1926, Nelle Harper Lee was to become far more than simply another Southern belle.

Along with her parents and siblings, Lee called Monroeville, Alabama home.  As time went on, Monroeville was to frame the lives of more than one great writer including Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote.

A tomboy without question during her youth, Lee’s personality and character are directly reflected in her much revered novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which is considered a true American classic.

The Early Years of Harper Lee

Initially, Lee followed her father into the legal field, studying law at the University of Alabama. However,  she never completely relinquished her love for literature and writing. As her studies moved forward, Lee felt compelled to answer the call to become a writer, leaving behind her ambition to become an attorney.

Harper Lee focused intently on the pursuit of writing, taking her middle name as her first in an attempt to prevent the world from coming to know her as ‘Nellie.’  The aspiring author had no idea that she would soon be thrust into a world of unsurpassed attention with what was, until recently, her first and only published novel.

It would come as a great surprise to the author that on publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, the world began to regard her as a great talent. She was overwhelmed by all the attention and found it to be somewhat of a burden, saying quite publicly, that she was stunned by the popularity of her work.

Lee modeled the characters in her book, as well as the setting of Monroeville -- her sleepy hometown.  It wouldn’t take long to draw the world’s attention, and for a time, Monroeville would become almost famous, warranting a visit from renowned actor, Gregory Peck, who would play the character of Atticus Finch in the movie version of Lee’s story.

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird,  would be given the highest honor in literature, the Pulitzer Prize, which was awarded to Harper Lee in 1961.

Would the Real Harper Lee Please Stand Up?

Harper Lee has been the object of great speculation, and while there has been much written about her, there is still much that the world doesn’t know.  By her own design, she chooses to remain private and somewhat reclusive.

Here are a few interesting facts about Harper Lee:

Being close friends with Truman Capote led Harper Lee to develop her already strong instincts of survival and strength of character. A ‘tell it like it is’ approach, and an inclination for not suffering fools, soon followed.

As a committed writer, overseen by literary publishers and editors, Harper Lee is said to have been studious and professional in her approach to complete the prized novel. Although strong willed, Lee was moderately compliant, mostly due to being a new and inexperienced writer. For the most part, she was regarded for doing what was asked of her.

Many early drafts of Mockingbird and other pieces were not considered good enough by Lee, and duly thrown out. After 40 million copies sold worldwide, many are certainly glad someone had the good sense to save Lee’s work from her own harsh hand in editing.

Interestingly, To Kill a Mockingbird has long been the bane of many students. A mandatory look inside the turbulent times of conflict and race relations, it is considered to be number one, of the Top Ten books that students have been forced to read -- a fact possibly amusing to the author.  (In another survey, Mockingbirdhas been ranked as just behind the Bible in “favorite books” of Southern readers.)

Lee has been painted as a recluse, offering comment only where she felt it was required, and even then, holding to brevity about herself and her writing.  Perhaps these characteristics in her personality have only been magnified by the book’s success.

Great Expectations of Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s notable past has brought us to a present-day filled with whispers of a new novel on the horizon.

Harper Lee being presented an award

Understandably, the mere mention of a new manuscript and of its pending publication, has literary appetites stirring. The climate of excitement about the new book is partially due to this literary work being Lee’s only novel since the release of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960.  The excitement is also fanned by the fact it has been penned by a multiple-accolade-winning novelist of such notoriety.

Although written sometime before To Kill a Mockingbird, the new title, Go Set a Watchman, is what some would call a sequel, as it brings back the character of Scout Finch to the familiar setting of Maycomb, AL, some 20 years later.

Harper Lee will be 89 when this much-awaited piece becomes available in bookstores, and there has been certain conjecture as to whether this new work will be worthy of its predecessor. These questions are met confidently by fans of Lee who remain just as protective of the author, as she once was for this continuance of a legendary classic.

There is no question that the anticipation of both readers and the literary industry itself is unparalleled, especially in today’s world so used to immediate gratification. The wait seems, in the very least, to be excruciating for Go Set a Watchman’s debut in print.