American author Nelle Harper Lee (more commonly known by her pen name, Harper Lee), author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” passed away on Feb. 19 at 89 years old. Her novel is widely regarded as one of the most important pieces of writing about race in American literature.
Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. She was the youngest of four children to Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. She briefly attended the University of Alabama before moving to New York to pursue a writing career. She worked to make a living and wrote in her spare time. Several years after moving, she found an agent.
In December 1956, Lee received a generous Christmas gift from two close friends: a years’ worth of wages. A note accompanying the gift said, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
During this year off, Lee wrote a draft of a novel. A publisher at J.B. Lippincott Company was impressed with Lee’s writing but asked her to rewrite her story. After extensive revisions, Lee’s book as it is now known, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was published on July 11, 1960. It was met with immediate success and earned a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
In 1962 her book was made into a film of the same title, which was also met with critical success.
In 2001 Lee was inducted into the Alabama Society of Honor, and in 2006 the University of Notre Dame awarded her an honorary doctorate. President George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 but recovered. She eventually returned to her hometown of Monroeville to take care of her ill sister, and she spent most of her remaining days there, living a quiet, private life.
Despite her novel’s widespread success, Lee opted to spend her life out of the public eye. She rarely gave interviews and preferred to lead a private life for most of her remaining years after its publication. “To Kill a Mockingbird” stood as her only novel until 2015, when she resurfaced in the media following the announcement that she would publish another book. On July 14, 2015, Lee published “Go Set a Watchman” which was actually Lee’s unpublished draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Go Set a Watchman” was not met with as much praise from critics as Lee’s first novel because it depicts Atticus Finch, the book’s most iconic character, in a different way, as he questions whether or not the South is ready to be fully racially integrated. Some readers and critics felt disappointed in his character.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Contributes to Race Discussions
The now critically acclaimed novel was based loosely off Lee’s own childhood in the South. Set in Alabama in the 1930s, the story is told through the eyes of young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Her father Atticus is a lawyer (just as Lee’s own father was) who is assigned the case of Tom Robinson, a Black man who stands accused of raping a white woman. Although none of the evidence points to Robinson and in fact points to the young girl’s own father, Atticus knows he faces a losing battle but still uses the case as a way to teach his town and his children a lesson about race.
Atticus famously says that while he does not believe all men are created equal (“some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others”), a courtroom should serve as an equalizer and, in the eyes of the law, all men should in fact be treated equally.
“Our courts have their faults, as does any human constitution,” Atticus says, “but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”
The book provides a realistic depiction of racial tensions in the South during the Great Depression era, as well as an inspirational approach to the issue from Atticus. Its bold takeon themes of racism and equality has given it a place in American literature even today, 56 years after its publication, as it is still widely read by students in classrooms across the country.
Despite any criticisms of her second book, Lee’s contributions to race discussions stemming from both of her novels cannot be denied and will likely continue for years to come.