11 Snapshots from the Life of Harper Lee (RIP)

RealClear Staff


Harper Lee's legend will endure long after her death -- and since she wrote basically the one book, "To Kill a Mockingbird," and didn't give interviews in the last 50 years of her life, her popularity is perhaps the greatest example of the power of words.

1. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' Sold More Than 10 Million Copies

Harper Lee's first -- and for a long time only -- novel, about racial injustice in a small Alabama town as seen through a child's eyes, became one of the most beloved and most taught works of fiction ever written by an American. By the late 1970s “To Kill a Mockingbird” had sold nearly 10 million copies, and in 1988 the National Council of Teachers of English reported that it was being taught in 74 percent of the nation’s secondary schools. In the late 1990s, Library Journal declared it the best novel of the 20th century.

2. Flannery O'Connor Hated It

O'Connor ("Wise Blood") was, like Lee, from the South and they were contemporaries. But O'Connor wasn't down with "To Kill a Mockingbird."  O’Connor wrote in a letter to friend shortly after the novel’s appearance,  “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book.”

3. Atticus Finch Was Based on Her Father

The lawyer hero of "To Kill a Mockingbird," who has become one of the most beloved characters in all of fiction, was based her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, who was a prominent lawyer in their hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Mr. Lee shared Atticus' stilted diction and lofty sense of civic duty. 

4. She Was Just Like Scout

Harper Lee, like her alter ego Scout, the little girl who narrates "To Kill a Mockingbird," was a tough little tomboy who enjoyed beating up the local boys, climbing trees and rolling in the dirt. “A dress on the young (Harper) would have been as out of place as a silk hat on a hog,” recalled neighbor Marie Rudisill. Lee approved of the casting of Mary Badham (above, with Lee) in the film.

5. She Became Lifelong Friends With Gregory Peck

Harper Lee spent three weeks on the set of "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1961). The man who won an Oscar for playing Atticus Finch -- essentially her father -- remained in her life until his death. After Gregory Peck's death, she remained close to the actor's family; Peck's grandson, Harper Peck Voll, is named after her.

6. Incredibly, She Was Childhood Friends With Truman Capote

Truman Persons (later Capote, who wrote "in Cold Blood" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's"), who spent several summers next door to Harper Lee with relatives. The two became fast friends, acting out adventures and, after Lee's father gave the two children an old Underwood typewriter, making up their own stories to dictate to each other.

Capote later based two characters on Lee. In his first book, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” she appears as the tomboy Idabel Tompkins. She is Ann Finchburg, nicknamed Jumbo, in his story “The Thanksgiving Visitor.” Lee returned the favor, casting Capote in the role of the little blond tale-spinner Dill in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

7. Lee Helped Capote With 'In Cold Blood'

Truman Capote's undisputed masterpiece, "In Cold Blood," a non-fiction book published in 1966 about the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas, might not have been possible without Lee.

Before "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published, Capote asked Lee to accompany him to Kansas to research the shocking murder of a farm family. Would she like to come along as his “assistant researchist”? For months, Lee accompanied Capote as he interviewed police investigators and local folk. Engaging and down to earth, she opened doors that, without her, would have remained closed to her companion, whose flamboyantly effeminate manner struck many townspeople as weird. Each night she wrote detailed reports on her impressions and turned them over to Capote. Later she read his manuscript closely and offered comments.

Their journey together was detailed in two movies: "Capote," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener (above); and "Infamous," starring Toby Jones and Sandra Bullock.

8. She Became the Greta Garbo of Literature

Feeling immense pressure because of the runaway success of "To Killa Mockingbird," Lee never wrote another novel, feeling she couldn't meet the high expectations. “Success has had a very bad effect on me,” Lee told The Associated Press. “I’ve gotten fat — but extremely uncomplacent. I’m running just as scared as before.” She then stopped giving interviews around 1964 and lived her life in seclusion in Monroeville, Alabama, with her sister Alice, who practiced law into her 90s and died in 2014 at age 103.

9. Letter to Oprah -- and a Critique of Modern Times

On May 7, 2006, Lee wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey (published in O, The Oprah Magazine in July 2006). Lee wrote about her love of books as a child and her dedication to the written word. "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books."

10. There Was One More Novel, and Controversy

News in 2013 of the rediscovery of “Go Set a Watchman,” a long-lost manuscript written before "To Kill a Mockingbird" that acts as a sort of sequel 20 years later, threw the literary world into turmoil. Many critics, as well as friends of Lee (who had been in ill health and may have been suffering from dementia), found the timing and the rediscovery story suspicious, and openly questioned whether Lee, who was shielded from the press by  her lawyer, Tonja P. Carter, was mentally competent to approve its publication.

Many critics thought “Go Set a Watchman” was nothing more than the initial draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” from which, at the direction of her editors, she had excised the scenes from Scout’s childhood and developed them into a separate book. Many readers, who had grown up idolizing Atticus, were crushed by his portrayal, 20 years on, as a staunch defender of segregation.

11. Still, a Legacy Secure

"To Kill a Mockingbird" won the Pulitzer Prize and is a bedrock American classic. The movie is on AFI's list of greatest films of all-time. A Broadway play of "Mockingbird" will open in 2017. President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature in 2007.



Most Viral This Week

Scroll Top

Like us on facebook to get more stuff like this in your news feed!


I already like RealClear, don't show this again

Share on Facebook