This Day In Literary History
On April 28th, 1926, the legendary American writer Harper Lee was born. She was born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama. The youngest of four children, her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a lawyer.
He also served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938 and was a former newspaper editor. As a child, Harper Lee was a precocious tomboy and a voracious reader. Her best friend, neighbor, and classmate was the legendary writer Truman Capote.
After graduating from Monroe County High School, Harper Lee enrolled in the Huntingdon College for women, then transferred to the University of Alabama to study law.
She wrote for several student newspapers and edited the campus humor magazine, Rammer Jammer. After studying for a year in Oxford, she left college without obtaining a law degree.
In 1950, Harper moved to New York City and took a job as reservation clerk, first for Eastern Airlines, then BOAC. She divided her time between her cold water flat in New York and her family home in Alabama, where she cared for her ailing father.
By 1956, determined to become a writer, she began writing stories and found herself an agent. In December of 1956, she received a year's wages and time off from work as a Christmas present.
The gift came with a note that said, "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas." Harper Lee used her time off to write a novel. Within a year, she completed the first draft.
Working with Tay Hohoff, an editor for J.B. Lippincott & Co., she completed her final draft in the summer of 1959. A year later, in July of 1960, her novel was published. It was called To Kill A Mockingbird.
Set in 1930s Alabama, the semi autobiographical novel is narrated by eight-year-old Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, a precocious tomboy. She lives with her older brother Jeremy "Jem" Finch and their widower father, Atticus Finch, a prominent, liberal attorney.
Scout's best friend is Charles Baker "Dill" Harris, who, although small for his age, has a big imagination. Together, the spend their days fantasizing about a mysterious neighbor - an enigmatic recluse named Arthur "Boo" Radley who never comes out of his home.
Wondering if he really is a monster, the kids try to draw him out. Meanwhile, a poor black man named Tom Robinson is falsely accused of raping a white woman, and Atticus Finch agrees to defend him. His determination to see justice done inflames the community against him.
As the trial progresses, the once respected and loved Atticus becomes the most hated man in town. As Scout's big brother Jem reaches adolescence, the climate of violent racism and the injustice meted out by a bigoted all-white jury disturbs him greatly.
Tom Robinson is convicted of rape despite the truth uncovered by Atticus Finch: when Tom's accuser, the lonely, abused Mayella Ewell, was caught making sexual advances to a black man, she falsely accused him of rape out of fear of her father Bob, a violent racist and alcoholic.
Later, Tom Robinson is shot and killed while trying to escape from prison. (Earlier, Atticus, Scout, Jem, and Dill had prevented a mob from lynching him.) Meanwhile, Bob Ewell, humiliated by Atticus' public revelations about his daughter, vows revenge.
He spits in Atticus' face and later attacks his children on their way home from a school Halloween pageant. Jem defends his little sister and gets his arm broken. Suddenly, someone appears out of the shadows and saves the kids.
Bob Ewell is attacked and killed by a strange, silent man who then scoops up the injured Jem and carries him home. Scout realizes that their savior is none other than Boo Radley, who finally came out of his house.
To Kill a Mockingbird became an overnight sensation - an immediate bestseller that received rave reviews from both readers and critics. The following year, Harper Lee was stunned when her novel won her the Pulitzer Prize.
She moved on to her next project, accompanying her childhood friend Truman Capote to Kansas for what they had originally planned to be an article about a small town shocked by the murders of a local farmer and his family.
Capote later turned the true story into an acclaimed non-fiction book, In Cold Blood (1966). In 1962, a feature film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was released. The highly acclaimed film starred Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and featured an incredible performance by eight-year-old newcomer Mary Badham as Scout.
Harper Lee loved the film and called Horton Foote's screenplay "one of the best translations of a book to film ever made." The movie would win Gregory Peck the Best Actor Oscar and Horton Foote the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Peck and Harper Lee would become lifelong friends; his grandson Harper Peck Voll is named after her. In June of 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Harper Lee to the National Council on the Arts.
That same year, she experienced one of the first attempts at censoring her novel. A school board in Richmond, Virginia voted to ban To Kill a Mockingbird from classroom study and school libraries, denouncing the novel as "immoral literature."
Lee wrote the following response in a letter to the editor of Richmond's largest newspaper:
Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.
Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is “immoral” has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.
I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.
Over the years, To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a staple of study for eighth grade English classes, has faced similar attempts by disgruntled would-be censors to remove it from school libraries and classrooms.
Harper Lee originally planned to write another novel, but her manuscript for The Long Goodbye would be filed away unfinished. During the mid 1980s, she began writing a non-fiction book about an Alabama serial killer, but she gave up on that as well.
Her writing output since To Kill a Mockingbird consisted of just a few essays and articles. In 2006, she wrote a letter to legendary talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey, which would be published in O, the Oprah Magazine.
In it, she spoke of her childhood love of books and her dedication to the written word. She wrote: "Now, 75 years later, in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books."
In November of 2007, Harper Lee was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush at a ceremony in the White House. It appeared that To Kill A Mockingbird would be her only novel.
Then, on February 3rd, 2015, Harper Lee announced that she would be publishing another novel. The book, titled Go Set A Watchman and published a few months later in July, was a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird that follows Scout as a grown woman.
Watchman was actually written before Mockingbird, which was intended to be its prequel. Lee thought the manuscript had been lost forever, but it was found by her lawyer in a safe deposit box in 2011. The manuscript was published exactly as written, with no revisions.
It's 20 years later, and the Civil Rights movement is just starting to become a major force for change. With racial tensions escalating across the country, especially in Scout Finch's home state of Alabama, she can't help but recall the lessons she learned in childhood.
Scout, now going by her proper name Jean Louise, joins the Civil Rights movement and is stunned to discover that her now elderly father Atticus, whom she idolized and who risked everything to defend an innocent black man from racist injustice, is opposed to civil rights.
What's more, he's determined to fight school integration and has been consorting with the Ku Klux Klan. For the first time, Jean Louise begins to see her father through the eyes of an intelligent grown woman instead of the rose colored glasses of a naive, adoring little girl.
She finds that Atticus is flawed like any other person and, like other white Southerners, fears the sudden end of the only way of life he's ever known. Can it really be true? Will Jean Louise's relationship with her father be shattered forever?
The announcement of a second Harper Lee novel came as quite a shock to the literary community. The 89-year-old author had been residing in a nursing home, having suffered a stroke a while back. Her vision and hearing were deteriorating.
The timing of Watchman's publication made some wonder if Lee, perhaps senile, was being exploited by her publisher. Suspicion of elder abuse led the state of Alabama to conduct an investigation. They interviewed Lee and determined that no abuse had taken place.
Her longtime friend, historian Wayne Flynt, said that the "narrative of senility, exploitation of this helpless little old lady is just hogwash. It's just complete bunk."
Needless to say, the publication of Go Set A Watchman caused quite a stir. Many readers believed that Lee had betrayed them and soiled the legacy of one of America's most beloved literary characters.
Others, like this writer, found Watchman to be a powerful read and a worthy successor to To Kill A Mockingbird that truthfully explores the insidious nature of intolerance.
Harper Lee died in February 2016 at the age of 89.
Quote Of The Day
"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." - Harper Lee
Today's video features an episode of Duke University's DukeReads TV series, with Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird the subject of discussion. Enjoy!