Happy Birthday, Harper Lee!

Authors, Banned and Challenged Books

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, would have been 96 years old today. Although she published only two books in her lifetime, the story and characters of the fictional Southern town she created have become significant staples of literary canon. It seems that one story was all that she needed in order to make a lasting mark on the world. 

Harper Lee with President George W. Bush, when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Harper Lee with President George W. Bush, when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of four children. Her father was a lawyer for the Alabama state legislature, and it has been widely speculated that he and one of his legal cases were an inspiration for the events in To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee was somewhat of a tomboy growing up, and developed a love of literature in high school that would span her entire life. 

After high school, she attended a few colleges, including Huntingdon College, University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and University of Oxford in England, and studied law. However, she dropped out of law school and made the decision to move to New York City at 23, to pursue her dream of being a writer. 

While there, Lee became friends with Michael Martin Brown and his wife Joy. In 1956, the couple gave Lee the Christmas present of every aspiring artists’ dream: they would financially support her for the next year so that she could work on her writing full-time. Lee naturally accepted the offer and began writing.

Around the same time, she became reacquainted with her childhood friend Truman Capote, another writer who was working on an article for the New Yorker. Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote for his research and was apparently great at winning over locals for interviews “with her easygoing, unpretentious manner.” Capone’s research would evolve in the nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, published in 1966. 

Lee worked with her literary agent and editor to pitch a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. This original draft would be published as her second novel Go Set a Watchman, which was told from 26-year-old Louise Jean Finch’s perspective. Lee’s editor suggested that Lee reframe the story by focusing on Finch’s childhood, as they found the childhood flashbacks in the draft more compelling than the main story. Lee rewrote the novel with this feedback, which was published in 1960 as To Kill a Mockingbird.  

Almost immediately following its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird received wide-spread acclaim and attention from the public. This review from The Chicago Tribune expresses the enthusiastic initial reception of the novel. 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The story, set in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930’s, is both a coming-of-age novel and a historical reflection of racial tensions in America. Told through the perspective of “Scout”, the young daughter of lawyer Atticus Finch, the main plot revolves around Atticus’ legal defense of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. Comparisons have been drawn between real-life cases, such as the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. 

Though positively received, To Kill a Mockingbird has also been frequently challenged. Most of these challenges and calls for the book to be banned come from its use in classrooms, citing strong language, use of racial slurs, and the subject of rape not being appropriate for students. To Kill a Mockingbird has been on the list of 100 most frequently challenged books from the ALA for the past three decades. 

Through the challenges, To Kill a Mockingbird has remained a staple of American English classes and has sold over 40 million copies worldwide. I think this article by JSTOR Daily puts it well when they say: “Whatever readers make of the way Lee’s novels probe America’s persisting plague of racism, perhaps what’s most significant to note is how their complexities stay relevant.” 

Picture portrait of Harper Lee, used as the back cover for the first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

The story has been adapted for both an equally successful film in 1962, which Lee was highly involved with, and more recently a Broadway show in 2018. The film version went on to be nominated for 8 Academy Awards. In 2007, Lee was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, for her “outstanding contribution to America’s literary tradition.” 

Following the success of her debut novel, Lee retreated back into a quiet life in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. The community in Monroeville celebrated Lee while also protecting her privacy, and it was very rare that she would give interviews. Lee lived with her sister Alice, who worked at the law firm their father had started.    

HarperCollins published what was framed as a sequel to Mockingbird in 2015: Go Set a Watchman. This was in reality the first draft of Mockingbird, which had been thought to be lost until it was discovered by Lee’s attorney and personal friend. The book sold extremely well, breaking pre-sale records for HarperCollins, although some readers had negative reactions to the reveal within the sequel that Atticus Finch was actually a racist and held bigoted views. The commercial success of the novel was proof again that Lee’s fictional world and characters still held a place with the public. 

Harper Lee passed away unexpectedly in her sleep in Monroeville on February 19, 2016, at the age of 89. Then-president Obama and the First Lady released an official statement following her death, which I think sums up Lee’s impact quite nicely: 

“Ms. Lee changed America for the better. And there is no higher tribute we can offer her than to keep telling this timeless American story — to our students, to our neighbors, and to our children — and to constantly try, in our own lives, to finally see each other.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.