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Author Biography

Professor Bradley Greenburg from Northeastern Illinois University talks about the life of Harper Lee and how she came to write To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee | Biography

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Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, the same state in which To Kill a Mockingbird 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 planted the seeds for the characters and story found in the novel. Much like Scout, Lee was a professed tomboy whose father—thought to be the inspiration of Atticus Finch—was also 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 court proceedings in which her father practiced.

It's often speculated that Lee's childhood friend and next-door neighbor, Truman Streckfus Persons—who would grow up to be famed author Truman Capote—was the inspiration for Dill (Charles Baker Harris).

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

Lee earned her own literary achievement 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 didn't publish any more books until 2015. Her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, features many of the same characters as To Kill a Mockingbird, although it is set 20 years after that novel's events. Although Go Set a Watchman was initially publicized as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, the book is actually a first draft of Lee's prize-winning novel. When Go Set a Watchman was rejected for publication in 1957, Lee's editor suggested she revise the story to focus on the character of Scout. Two years later To Kill a Mockingbird was accepted for publication.

Lee's 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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