Born in 1926, Harper Lee grew up in the Southern town of Monroeville, Alabama, where she became close friends with soon-to-be-famous writer Truman Capote. She attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery (1944–45), and then studied law at the University of Alabama (1945–49). While attending college, she wrote for campus literary magazines: Huntress at Huntingdon and the humor magazine Rammer Jammer at the University of Alabama. At both colleges, she wrote short stories and other works about racial injustice, a rarely mentioned topic on such campuses at the time. In 1950, Lee moved to New York City, where she worked as a reservation clerk for British Overseas Airways Corporation; there, she began writing a collection of essays and short stories about people in Monroeville. Hoping to be published, Lee presented her writing in 1957 to a literary agent recommended by Capote. An editor at J. B. Lippincott, who bought the manuscript, advised her to quit the airline and concentrate on writing.
Donations from friends allowed her to write uninterruptedly for a year. After finishing the first draft and returning it to Lippincott, the manuscript, at that point titled "Go Set a Watchman", fell into the hands of Therese von Hohoff Torrey, known professionally as Tay Hohoff. Hohoff was impressed, "[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line," she would later recount in a corporate history of Lippincott, but as Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, "more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel." During the following two and a half years, she led Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form.
After the "Watchman" title was rejected, it was re-titled Atticus but Lee renamed it To Kill a Mockingbird to reflect that the story went beyond a character portrait. The book was published on July 11, 1960. The editorial team at Lippincott warned Lee that she would probably sell only several thousand copies. In 1964, Lee recalled her hopes for the book when she said,
I never expected any sort of success with 'Mockingbird.' ... I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.
Instead of a "quick and merciful death", Reader's Digest Condensed Books chose the book for reprinting in part, which gave it a wide readership immediately. Since the original publication, the book has never been out of print.