English Literature
Harper Lee

Harper Lee

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The Enduring Legacy of Harper Lee: An Icon of Modern American Literature

Despite only releasing two books throughout her career, Harper Lee has solidified her place as one of the most influential figures in modern American literature. From her groundbreaking novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which earned her the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, to her numerous awards and honors, Lee's impact can still be felt today.

Content Warning: This article contains themes of rape.

Harper Lee: An Inspirational Biography

Early Life and Education

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama, to a homemaker mother and a lawyer father, Frances Cunningham and Amasa Coleman Lee. She was the youngest of four children, and her unconventional name was a nod to her grandmother. Her middle name, "Harper," was a tribute to her sister's pediatrician, while her last name connected her to Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a distant relative.

Lee developed a love for English literature during her high school years, although her father pushed her to pursue a law degree after graduation, which she eventually abandoned.

To avoid confusion with her first name, Nelle, she used the pen name "Harper Lee" in her personal and professional life.

Adulthood and Literary Career

In 1949, at the age of 24, Lee moved to New York City, where she took on various jobs while striving to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer. It was during this time that she began writing her most famous work, To Kill a Mockingbird. After a year of intense revisions, the novel was published in 1960, amidst the civil rights movement in the United States.

To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant success, winning Lee the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Despite living in New York for over four decades, Lee did not release any other books. She started and abandoned several writing projects, citing her discomfort with public attention and the pressure of being in the spotlight. Lee rarely made public appearances and turned down most requests for interviews.

As a child, Harper Lee formed a close bond with fellow writer Truman Capote, and their friendship continued into adulthood. They lived near each other in New York City, and Lee even helped Capote with research for his true crime novel, In Cold Blood. Their friendship inspired characters in each other's works, such as Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird and a woman in Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms.

In 2014, Lee's lawyer discovered the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman in her safety deposit box. The novel was released as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird in 2015, just a year before Lee's passing. While some questioned the timing, there was no evidence of any elder abuse or coercion involved.

On February 19, 2016, Harper Lee passed away in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, at the age of 89.

Harper Lee's Legacy: The Impact of Her Books

With only two published books, Harper Lee has left an indelible mark on American literature. Her most famous work, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960, followed by Go Set a Watchman 55 years later, just a year before her passing.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Released in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird quickly became a timeless classic. The novel follows the coming-of-age story of six-year-old Scout Finch, growing up in rural Alabama during the Great Depression. When Scout's father, a lawyer named Atticus Finch, takes on the defense of a Black man accused of raping a white girl, the siblings are forced to confront the racism and prejudice deeply ingrained in their community.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful work of fiction and earned Lee the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

While the novel is a work of fiction, Lee drew inspiration from her own life. Like Scout, she grew up in rural Alabama, and her father was a lawyer who unsuccessfully defended a Black man in court. The fictional town of Maycomb is believed to be based on Lee's hometown, Monroeville, Alabama.

Harper Lee's Second Novel: Go Set a Watchman

Published in 2015, just a year before the author's passing, Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee's second and final novel. It provides a deeper look into the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird and addresses themes of disillusionment and racial tension in the South during the 1950s.

Twenty years after the events of her debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee returned to the shelves with her highly anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman. Set in 1950s Alabama, the story is told through the eyes of protagonist Scout as she goes back to her hometown to visit her father, Atticus, and explores the racial tensions of the time.

Interestingly, Go Set a Watchman was originally marketed as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. However, it was later revealed that this new novel was actually the first draft of Lee's acclaimed book. It had been written before To Kill a Mockingbird was published, making it more of a prequel than a sequel.

The release of this long-hidden manuscript, along with the author's sudden change of heart and the marketing of the novel as a sequel, sparked controversy among some. However, it also provided readers with new insights into the life and works of this iconic American writer.

Harper Lee: Life and Legacy

Born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926, Harper Lee grew up next door to fellow writer Truman Capote. The two maintained a close friendship throughout their lives. After moving to New York City, Lee worked in a bookstore and as an airline ticket clerk. She was later appointed to the National Council for the Arts in 1966 and received an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame in 2006.

Lee's contributions to the literary world were also recognized, as she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2007 and the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2010. In her personal life, Lee was a fan of the New York Mets and enjoyed playing golf.

Themes and Quotes in Harper Lee's Novels


"Before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience." -To Kill a Mockingbird (Chapter 11)

"What stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, 'What would Atticus do?' passed through her unconscious... she did not know that she worshiped him." -Go Set a Watchman (Chapter 9)

In both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, the father figure, Atticus Finch, serves as a moral compass for his children. Through his strict yet compassionate nature, he aims to instill strong moral values in Scout and Jem, teaching them to follow their conscience and stand by their principles. Through Atticus' empathy, Lee highlights the complexities of morality and the blurred lines between right and wrong.


"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." -To Kill a Mockingbird (Chapter 3)

"Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends." -Go Set a Watchman (Chapter 18)

Racism, prejudice, and discrimination are major themes in both of Lee's novels. While To Kill a Mockingbird explores these issues in the context of the Great Depression, Go Set a Watchman delves into the civil rights movement. However, Lee also sheds light on the discrimination faced by characters based on class, occupation, gender, and malicious rumors.

The Mockingbird

"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." -To Kill a Mockingbird (Chapter 10)

In both of Lee's novels, the mockingbird serves as a powerful symbol of innocence and purity. The act of killing one is seen as a senseless and cruel act. However, as the world continues to harm and destroy the innocent, many characters in Lee's novels can be seen as mockingbirds.

Key Takeaways on Harper Lee

Despite her significant impact on American literature, Harper Lee only published two novels. While she was born in Alabama, she spent most of her adult life in New York City. Through her works, she explores complex themes such as morality, prejudice, and discrimination, using poignant and thought-provoking quotes to convey her messages. And although the mockingbird may seem insignificant, it holds great symbolic meaning in both of Lee's novels.

Unveiling the Truth about Harper Lee and Her Literary Masterpiece

While many thought it was a sequel to her highly acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird, it was later revealed that the book was actually an early draft of Harper Lee's first novel. At the age of eighty-nine, Lee sadly passed away on February 19, 2016, in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

What inspired Lee to write To Kill a Mockingbird? Her main motivation was to delve into the complex themes she had observed while growing up in the Southern United States. These themes encompassed issues of morality, racism, and justice.

Did Lee draw from personal experiences in writing To Kill a Mockingbird? Absolutely. Her own life influenced the novel in many ways. Similar to the protagonist Scout Finch, Lee spent her childhood in rural Alabama and had a father who worked as a lawyer and defended a Black man in a highly publicized court case.

Who was Harper Lee? She was a highly talented American novelist, renowned for her widely acclaimed book To Kill a Mockingbird.

How many books did Harper Lee write? In her lifetime, Lee penned two novels: To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, leaving a lasting impact on the literary world.

When did Harper Lee leave us? Harper Lee passed away in 2016, but her legacy lives on through her powerful and thought-provoking literature. She will forever be remembered as a brilliant writer and a voice of her generation.

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