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Harper Lee: Biography

There are only so many things that we know for sure about Nelle Harper Lee, born 28 April 1926, and the author of To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

We know that she was a lawyer's daughter, raised in a small Alabama town in the 1930s, just like her plucky narrator Scout Finch. We know that Lee was aware of the racial injustices and ugly prejudices that simmered in small towns like hers and that sometimes these prejudices erupted in trials similar to the one at the center of her book. We know that in 1960 she published a novel that became an instant classic, inspiring millions with its unique blend of humor and sharp social observations. And then, at the peak of her fame, Harper Lee decided to turn down the limelight offered to her. She was, as the writer Garrison Keillor has put it, "a woman who knew when to get off the train."2Lee put her legacy even more simply: "I said what I have to say."3

At a time when everyone seems to have their own blog, Twitter feed, and hourly Facebook updates, it can be hard to understand why someone would turn down the recognition that comes with the rare feat of writing a bestselling and highly-acclaimed book. According to people who know her, Harper Lee was not a creepy recluse like Boo Radley or a social misfit or misanthrope. She was funny, outgoing, and a valued member of the Alabama community where she lived. She simply valued her privacy and preferred to let her beloved book speak for itself.

The little she shared about her background helps us understand the time and place in which Mockingbird is set. But that's all we're going to get. And, really, it's all that we deserve. "She is apparently in good humor and enjoying her food and not planning to go on Oprah or Charlie Rose," Keillor wrote. "And so there, dear reader, you will just have to leave her."4

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