Harper Lee is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Born on 28 April 1926, Harper Lee almost became a lawyer. She attended the University of Alabama Law School, but left with only semester remaining to receive her degree.
After attending Oxford University for a year, Lee went to New York City to pursue a writing career in 1950. Within ten years, she had finished her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1961, a year after it was first published, the novel went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. It remains a great favorite. In 1999, the Library Journal voted To Kill a Mockingbird “the best novel of the century.”
Set in Alabama, and very biographical, the story of To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated from the perspective of a young girl named Scout. Much of the story revolves around the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell, which interrupts Scout’s quiet world of child play. Ultimately, the novel is about a young girl learning about the world around her, especially through conversations with her father Atticus, symbolic of honor, integrity, and courage. Atticus is the accused man’s lawyer, and while he is not able to save the defendant, his pursuit of the case teaches Scout valuable life lessons, including the importance of holding on to one’s values in the face of opposition.
In addition to the novel's literary success, its film adaptation was warmly received. Gregory Peck not only won an Oscar for his performance as Atticus, but he also became a life long friend of Harper Lee. Harper Lee was also friends with author Truman Capote, who is the basis for the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee was the inspiration for a character in Capote’s book, Other Voices, Other Rooms. It has also been rumored that Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.
Despite such accusations, Harper Lee continues to receive accolades for her beloved novel. When receiving an honorary degree at Notre Dame, Harper Lee was treated to the sight of all graduating students holding a copy of her novel. She has also been admitted to the National Council of Arts.
While speculations of another novel continue, Harper Lee continues to be reclusive. In an interview a few years after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee explained that one of her goals in writing the novel was to talk about life in a Southern town, the pure simplicity of which should be celebrated and its loss mourned. To Kill a Mockingbird did not come about through the need to create a great work of art. Instead, it was a story that Lee felt needed to be told.
The success of her novel, while delightful, slightly frightened Lee and probably continues to do so to some extent. She rarely gives interviews, and her public appearances consist mainly of attending receptions for the winners of a writing contest named after her. This behavior remains the same despite increasing curiosity about Harper Lee after movies such as Infamous, which are based on her life. In an interview with the New York Times, she has said that much of her time is spent declining requests for interviews. Despite the availability of her novel, which has been printed in several languages, Harper Lee has shunned the limelight for over four decades.