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Harper Lee Introduction

What Harper Lee did... and why you should care

In July 1960, J.B. Lippincott Company published a book about social injustice, morals, and growing up in the Depression-era South. You might have heard of it: it's called To Kill A Mockingbird.

It was the debut novel of a 34-year-old woman named Nelle Harper Lee, who dropped the "Nelle" from her pen name because she didn't want it to be mispronounced. (We hear you, Lee—no one gets "Shmoop" right.)

Lee's book went on to sell more than 40 million copies—and that number is only increasing. It has a place on virtually every Best Of, Greatest Novels, and Favorite Books list in existence (including ours). The movie adaptation is a classic in its own right, and the success of both guaranteed fame and financial security for the rest of Lee's life.

Not too shabby.

Every word of To Kill A Mockingbird has been analyzed in countless essays and critical papers and, of course, on Shmoop. But far less is known about the book's author—and that's just the way Harper Lee wanted it. Unlike her childhood friend and fellow literary superstar Truman Capote, who once confessed to having a love affair with "cameras—all cameras,"1 Harper Lee studiously avoided the public eye.

Of course, with the publication of her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, that public eye widened again. People were abuzz with everything from excitement ("she's ba-ack") to trepidation ("someone's forcing her to do this").

Whatever the case, she continued to decline interviews. She refused public appearances and said little when she made them. Enterprising reporters would knock on her door and she would firmly turn them away, though not without autographing their copies of To Kill A Mockingbird with a polite "Best Wishes."

Biographers practically tore their hair out trying to get close to their unwilling subject, with one even faking his way onto an online reunion site in an attempt to contact her old classmates.

We won't go that far.

Harper Lee passed away in February 2016. What we have here at Shmoop is the story of Harper Lee's life and work—as much as she was willing to share with the world. And we think that's enough. After all, as Atticus Finch reminded us with respect to the title's mockingbird, to harass a creature that brings nothing but joy is a sin.

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