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Harper Lee | Biography


Childhood and Education

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, the same state in which Go Set a Watchman is set. She was the youngest of four children born to Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee.

Certain aspects of Lee's upbringing seem to have colored her writing. Much like Jean Louise, Lee was a professed tomboy whose father—thought to be the inspiration for Atticus Finch—was a lawyer and legislator who had once defended two black men accused of murdering a white man. As a child she often sat in on her father's court proceedings.

It's often speculated that Lee's childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Truman Streckfus Persons—who would grow up to be the famed American author Truman Capote—was the inspiration for Dill, a main character from To Kill a Mockingbird who is referenced in Go Set a Watchman.

Lee finished high school and enrolled in Huntingdon College in 1944. There, she occasionally wrote articles for the college newspaper. The following year, inspired by her father's legal career, she transferred to law school at the University of Alabama.

Early Writing Career

At the university, Harper Lee continued her interest in writing, contributing to the student magazine and eventually becoming its editor. The summer before her senior year, she studied as an exchange student at the University of Oxford in England. There, she began to formulate a plan for the future: her career would be in writing, not law.

In 1949 after a final semester at the University of Alabama, she moved to New York City to pursue a literary career. There she met up with her childhood friend, Truman Capote. To support herself while writing, she served as Capote's research assistant, traveling with him to Holcomb, Kansas, where they worked on Capote's nonfiction narrative In Cold Blood (1966).

To Kill a Mockingbird

Lee achieved her own literary success in 1960 with the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. Despite the critical and commercial success, Lee chose to retire from public life and didn't publish any more books until 2015. In 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, who would win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Atticus Finch.

Go Set a Watchman

Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird eagerly anticipated the release of Go Set a Watchman, and more than a million copies were sold in the first week. Reactions to the new book have been mixed, however. Some critics cite examples of weak writing, but the most intense criticism was reserved for the character Atticus. The beloved, saint-like father in To Kill a Mockingbird is revealed as a flawed segregationist in Go Set a Watchman. Fans of Go Set a Watchman claim that the new book offers a more complex and raw look at racism as well as a more multi-dimensional Atticus than the previously published work represented.

Death and Legacy

At age 81, Lee was presented in 2007 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Her death at age 89 on February 19, 2016, prompted a national outpouring of grief and admiration for the author and her monumental work.

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