It’s rare for an author to make huge waves only after writing just one novel, but it can happen. The proof is Harper Lee, who, with To Kill a Mockingbird, secured a place for herself and her novel on the world’s bookshelf.
Born in Alabama, Nelle Harper Lee grew up in the small town of Monroeville. Lee developed an interest in literature as early as high school. She channeled her interest in writing early on as a journalist for the university newspaper of the University of Alabama, where she studied law. Lee also attended a summer school in Oxford University. However, she didn’t complete her degree.
Lee moved to New York in 1949, working as an airline reservation agent while writing fiction on the side. In New York, she met with her childhood friend, Truman Capote, who, at the time, was a rising literary star. She also met and befriended Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Martin Brown and his wife, who supported Lee’s writing career and found her an agent.
To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. The book is a coming-of-age story that reflects racial prejudice in the Southern United States. The story features a young girl named Scout, whose lawyer father, Atticus Finch, tries to defend a black man who was charged with raping a white woman. The book won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Needless to say, the novel was a resounding success. It won several more awards and was adapted into a film in 1962. The film received eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
Lee worked on several books after Mockingbird, most of which were never published. Despite her popularity, Lee led a private life and used her wealth to make donations for various causes.
In addition to the awards received by Mockingbird, Lee was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2007 for her outstanding contribution to America’s literary tradition.
By 2014, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was rereleased as an e-book and digital audiobook by HarperCollins.
Lee published again in 2015. Go Set a Watchman followed the later lives of her characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. In Watchman, Scout is already twenty-six, and to the surprise of many, Atticus has become a racist bigot with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. This sharp contrast from her first novel caused an uproar from many fans and sparked debates all over the Internet. In line with this, the novel became one of the fastest-selling books in history.
In February 19, 2016, Harper Lee died in her sleep at the age of eighty-nine.
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