H is for Harper Lee

Harper Lee with 'Scout' on a set of the film
Born 1926

She’s the daughter of a former newspaper editor who practised law in the Alabama State Legislature; a perfect combination to have in a dad if you’re planning to write a book like To Kill a Mockingbird. That is Harper Lee. Did you know that this is her only published book? Some contrast to my yesterday’s favourite Georgette Heyer who was so prolific.

Her full name is Nelle Harper Lee. Nelle is her grandmother’s name spelt backward. Sweet, isn’t it? When I first read the book the only thing that stayed in my mind was Boo Radley and I gave it up midway as too scary.

Her Childhood

While her father was an attorney her mother Frances suffered from bipolar disorder. Rumour has it that she twice tried to drown Lee. As a result, Lee, grew up as a defensive and aggressive girl much like Scout in the book. She studied to become a lawyer. However even while in High School she was interested in Literature. After the first semester of her Law degree she dropped off to pursue her writing. She moved to New York where she met her childhood friend Truman Capote, a writer himself. She also made friends with Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Martin Brown and his wife Joy. In 1956, as a Christmas present, the couple offered to support Lee for one whole year while she focussed on her writing. Lee quit her job and did just that.

Life and fiction

As a child Lee observed racial discrimination in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Lee’s father once defended two black men, a father and a son, for killing a white storekeeper. The two men were hanged. Perhaps that’s where the idea germinated.

Lee modelled Scout on her own self. Both their dads were attorneys. Her friend Truman Capote, inspired the character Dill. Truman also talks about a character similar to Boo Radley who lived close by and left things in a tree just like Boo in the book.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Told from the perspective of a six-year-old girl, Scout, the book talks about her father Atticus Finch who is appointed by the court to defend a black man accused of raping a young white woman. He agrees to do so to the disapproval of the townsfolk. Even though evidence suggests otherwise the jury hold Tom guilty and he is shot dead while trying to escape from prison.

The book handles the sensitive issue of racial discrimination in a sweet and simple way. Since it’s told from a six-year-old's perspective it has to be simple, yet Scout and her brother Jem grasp the situation and staunchly stand by their father in an amazingly adult manner.

The book flows so seamlessly and seems so spontaneous that it is difficult to believe it took almost four years to be written. Lee laboured over each page. The first draft seemed like a bunch of stories rather than a novel and so Lee rewrote the book over two and a half years. It was finally published in 1960.

The book was later adapted into a film with Gregory peck
playing Atticus Finch. 
Scout and her brother Jem in a scene
from the film

It was an immediate success and won her the Pulitzer prize for fiction 1961.
After the publication Lee gave no interviews and hasn’t written anything other than a few essays since then. In 2006 British librarians ranked the book ahead of the Bible as a book ‘every adult should read before they die’. How’s that for praise!

Why Harper Lee never wrote again

Though she said she was working on a  second book The Long Goodbye, she never published again. No one knows for sure why that happened but some suggest it was the huge reaction to her first book that put her off writing. Though the book got her instant fame, back home in her close-knit town people recognised her in Scout. Perhaps even Lee hadn't been aware of how much she had drawn from real life. Her liberal anti racial views didn't go down well with her townspeople and she was flooded with hate mail. Always a defensive person, that made things worse for Lee and she never did write again.

It's a man on my blog tomorrow people. And a dashing one at that. His creation is, if I may use a much overused word, the 'sexiest' man ever and has been immortalised in films by some of the hottest actors of their time. I've almost given it away. 
Come now, guess!

This post is part of the April A to Z Challenge, 2014 for the theme AMAZING AUTHORS.

Also linking to the Ultimate Blog Challenge.

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