Biography of Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, to Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. Harper Lee grew up in the small southwestern Alabama town of Monroeville. Her father, a former newspaper editor and proprietor, was a lawyer who also served on the state legislature (1926-38). As a child, Lee was a tomboy and a precocious reader, and she enjoyed the friendship of her schoolmate and neighbor, the young Truman Capote, who provided the basis of the character of Dill in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee was only five years old in when, in April 1931 in the small Alabama town of Scottsboro, the first trials began with regard to the purported rapes of two white women by nine young black men. The defendants, who were nearly lynched before being brought to court, were not provided with the services of a lawyer until the first day of trial. Despite medical testimony that the women had not been raped, the all-white jury found the men guilty of the crime and sentenced all but the youngest, a twelve-year-old boy, to death. Six years of subsequent trials saw most of these convictions repealed and all but one of the men freed or paroled. The Scottsboro case left a deep impression on the young Lee, who would use it later as the rough basis for the events in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee studied first at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama (1944-45), and then pursued a law degree at the University of Alabama (1945-49), spending one year abroad at Oxford University, England. She worked as a reservation clerk for Eastern Airlines in New York City until the late 1950s, when she resolved to devote herself to writing. Lee lived a frugal lifestyle, traveling between her cold-water-only apartment in New York to her family home in Alabama to care for her ailing father. In addition, she worked in Holcombe, Kansas, as a research assistant for Truman Capote's novel In Cold Blood in 1959. Ever since the first days of their childhood friendship, Capote and Lee remained close friends.

Lee published her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird], in 1960 after a two-year period of revising and rewriting under the guidance of her editor, Tay Hohoff, of the J. B. Lippincott Company. To Kill a Mockingbird won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize despite mixed critical reviews. The novel was highly popular, selling more than fifteen million copies. Though in composing the novel she delved into her own experiences as a child in Monroeville, Lee intended that the book impart the sense of any small town in the Deep South, as well as the universal characteristics of human beings. The book was made into a successful movie in 1962, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus.

President Johnson named Lee to the National Council of Arts in June 1966, and since then she has received numerous honorary doctorates. She continues to live in New York and Monroeville but prefers a relatively private existence, granting few interviews and giving few speeches. She has published only a few short essays since her debut: "Love--In Other Words" in Vogue, 1961; "Christmas to Me" in McCall's, 1961; and "When Children Discover America" in McCall's, 1965.


Study Guides on Works by Harper Lee