Study Guide

Harper Lee Introduction

Harper Lee Introduction

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,"blank" href="https://www.shmoop.com/to-kill-a-mockingbird/atticus-finch.html">Atticus Finch reminded us with respect to the title's mockingbird, to harass a creature that brings nothing but joy is a sin.

Harper Lee Trivia

In the 1980s, a reporter and a photographer tracked down Harper Lee's address and knocked on her door. When she answered, they requested that she autograph a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee was perturbed but complied with the request, signing the book "Best wishes, Harper Lee." After telling her visitors "I hope you're more polite to other people" and "Next time try to be more thoughtful," they thanked her and she smiled. "You're quite welcome," she replied.

The book's use of racial epithets (which, it should be mentioned, were common at the time in which the book takes place) has made it among the American Library Association's most frequently-challenged and -banned books.

Among the famously private writer's few public appearances was regular attendance at the Honors College at the University of Alabama's annual luncheon. This event honors the winners of a student essay contest dedicated to Lee's work.

In 2006, members of the British Museum, Libraries and Archives Council voted To Kill A Mockingbird as the number one book that every adult should read before they die. The Bible was number two.

Two back-to-back biographical films of Truman Capote were released in 2005 and 2006, with actresses Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock playing Lee. After the release of both movies, Lee was deluged with a fresh round of interview requests. In response to a suggestion that she write a form letter declining interviews, Lee joked that the letter would just say "Hell, no."

David Kipen, director of The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts venture, pledged to eat a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird if any of the residents of Ohio's 131-resident Kelleys Island don't read the book, as of March 2009. Luckily, by May 2009, he had not had to go through with that pledge.

Nelle, Lee's actual first name, is her grandmother Ellen's name spelled backward.

Harper Lee Resources

Books

Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)
Well, this really is the big one, isn't it? Harper Lee's novel about a young girl's awakening to social injustice in the South is one of the classics of American literature. It appears on just about every "Best Novels" list in the English language. Forty years later, it still flies off the shelf like it's Oprah's latest book club pick. Go read it already!

Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948)
This is the first novel by Lee's childhood friend and Monroeville neighbor, Truman Capote. The book is about an eccentric, effeminate boy who is befriended by a tomboyish girl named Isabel. Both writers used details from their childhood in their books, including each other: Capote is the model for Mockingbird's Dill, and Lee is the model for Other Voices, Other Rooms's Isabel. Capote's original draft of Other Voices also contained a reclusive character who leaves little gifts in his tree, based on a Monroeville man. He took it out, but Lee used that local character in her book as Boo Radley.

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966)
Lee accompanied her childhood friend Truman Capote while he conducted his research for this nonfiction book, which has since been considered the prototype of the "nonfiction novel." Lee and Capote spent time in Kansas interviewing people and gathering details on the murder of the four members of the Clutter family. The meticulous, organized Lee carefully typed more than 100 pages of notes. Though her cooperation was vital, Capote never really acknowledged publicly how much she contributed.

Charles J. Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (2006)
Lee has refused to cooperate with biographers over the years. Shields was no exception—not a single interview with Lee appears in this book. Undaunted, Shields pursued the story of her life through friends, old colleagues and classmates, and lots of historical data instead. The result is the most comprehensive biography yet of the famously private writer. Don't expect any dirt, though—Lee's closest friends are just as protective of her privacy as she is.

Carson McCullers, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter (1940)
Along with Harper Lee and Truman Capote, novelist Carson McCullers belongs to the literary genre known as Southern Gothic. Her debut novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, is an exquisite, haunting story about a deaf man in 1930s Georgia. Like Lee does with Boo Radley, McCullers's writing draws sensitive, nuanced pictures of people who live on the edge of society.

James Goodman, Stories of Scottsboro (2006)
A number of real-life cases served as inspiration for Tom Robinson's trial in To Kill A Mockingbird. The most famous perhaps was the 1931 Scottsboro Boys Trial. This non-fiction account details the harrowing trial and imprisonment of nine young black men who were falsely accused of raping two white women. Goodman describes the complex social politics and racial tensions that surrounded the sensational trial.

Music

Hymns
When the good people of Maycomb sang, it was often about the Lord. Here is a collection of hymns that Scout and Jem would have been forced to sing in church, either their own or Calpurnia's.

"Sweetly Sings the Donkey"
It was one of Scout's favorites, and children are still singing it at schools today. Get out your recorders for a rousing good time. Hee haw!

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack (2000)
Okay, we have no direct evidence that Harper Lee is a Coen Brothers' fan. But the soundtrack to their film is a haunting collection of songs that would have been sung by people, both black and white, in 1930s Alabama.

Images

Harper Lee
A portrait of the writer.

Lee and Capote
Harper Lee and Truman Capote.

Lee and Scout
Harper Lee with Mary Badham, who played Scout in the movie.

Lee and Atticus
Harper Lee with Gregory Peck, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch.

In Court
Lee in the courthouse of Monroeville, Alabama.

Presidential Medal of Freedom
Lee receiving the award from President George W. Bush.

Movies & TV

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Just as the book is a classic of American literature, its film adaptation is a classic American movie. Don't just take our word for it—take Harper Lee's. She called screenwriter Horton Foote's adaptation of her book "one of the best translations of a book to film ever made." Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his performance as Atticus Finch and became one of Lee's close friends.

Capote (2005)
In one of those weird cases of pop culture synchronicity, Hollywood released back-to-back biopics of writer Truman Capote in the mid-2000s. His lifelong friend Harper Lee makes an appearance in each. In this film, which focuses on the period Capote spent researching and writing In Cold Blood, Catherine Keener plays a taciturn, supportive Harper Lee.

Infamous (2006)
This movie retells Truman Capote's life in a mock-documentary format. Sandra Bullock plays Lee, whose character is explored more in depth in this film that in its earlier counterpart. Both movies are well-made and take a unique approach to their common story.

Other Voices, Other Rooms (1995)
This film adaptation of Truman Capote's autobiographical novel paints a luscious portrait of the rural Southern towns where he and Lee grew up. The scenes between the Capote-inspired character and the tomboy Isabel modeled on Lee are particularly touching.

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy (2000)
This is an excellent documentary about the infamous Scottsboro case, which transpired after two impoverished white women accused nine black teenagers of rape in the 1930s. The movie does an especially great job of presenting the complex social politics of the Depression-era South in which the trial took place.

The Murder of Emmett Till (2003)
In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was savagely murdered by a gang of white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Outrage over Till's murder helped spark the American Civil Rights Movement. This excellent PBS documentary describes the world of social injustice and racial inequality that led to real-life tragedies, such as Till's death, and inspired fictional accounts, like Tom Robinson's trial.

Websites

The Big Read
To Kill A Mockingbird was chosen as a "Big Read" by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a program that promotes reading by having communities read the same book at the same time. The NEA has prepared a great website with an insightful biography of Lee, an overview of the book, reading group questions, and other useful links.

The Encyclopedia of Alabama
Harper Lee is one of many distinguished artists and writers who hails from the great southern state of Alabama. The Encyclopedia of Alabama chronicles her career and includes links to other Mockingbird resources and a bibliography.

To Kill A Mockingbird—The Annotated Guide
We love teachers! Nancy Louise Rutherford, an exceptionally-dedicated English teacher at Belmont High School in Los Angeles, created this online study companion for the novel. It has chapter-by-chapter annotations, plus some links to help navigate the world of Maycomb, Alabama. Teachers rock!

Famous American Trials—the Scottsboro Boys Trial
This comprehensive site hosts a wealth of material about the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in the 1930s. Lee was inspired by the case, which contains many of the same elements as Tom Robinson's trial in Mockingbird: black defendants, impoverished white accusers, a racially-charged political environment, and a courageous lawyer who was willing to risk community disapproval on behalf of justice.

Monroe County
Monroeville, Alabama, has never forgotten its favorite daughter, Harper Lee. The town where Lee grew up and where her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, practiced law has worked doggedly over the years to honor Mockingbird's legacy. The courthouse that inspired Lee's description of the Maycomb courthouse is now a museum. Performances of the play version of To Kill A Mockingbird are staged there each spring.

Southern Poverty Law Center
This is where Atticus Finch might practice if he were around today. The Center began in 1971 as a small law firm specializing in civil rights law. Today, it is a respected institution that advocates on behalf of social justice and tolerance.

Video & Audio

She speaks!
Rare footage of Harper Lee at a recent awards event—if you listen hard, you can hear her speak.

The Making of Harper Lee
A short video biography for kids that is surprisingly entertaining.

Keener on Lee
Actress Catherine Keener talks about Harper Lee, whom she portrayed in the film Capote.

Bullock on Lee
Actress Sandra Bullock talks about Lee, whom she portrayed in Infamous.

It's a Sin to Kill A Mockingbird
The scene from the film that explains the title.

Atticus Takes the Case
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch accepts Tom Robinson's case.

Atticus's speech
A recording of Gregory Peck's famous closing argument from the movie.

Primary Sources

"Love—In Other Words"
This April 1961 essay in Vogue is one of Lee's few published works besides To Kill A Mockingbird. The Shelfari page that archives her clips is a great resource, but the server is often busy—be patient if the link doesn't load at first or try again later.

"Christmas to Me"
An essay about Lee's life-changing Christmas. This piece appeared in McCall's in December 1961.

"When Children Discover America"
Harper Lee wrote this essay for McCall's in August 1965.

"Romance and High Adventure"
Lee wrote this for a 1983 Alabama Heritage Festival.

"A Letter From Harper Lee"
Lee's most recent published work is this July 2006 essay in O Magazine. If you click on the picture, it enlarges enough to read.

"About Life & Little Girls"
Time magazine's 1960 review of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Book Review in The Atlantic, 1960
Hopefully the first and last review to refer to the book as "sugar-water served with humor."

ACLU Report, Scottsboro Trials
In 1931, the ACLU sent an enterprising young female investigator to Scottsboro to write a report on the rape case unfolding there. Hollace Ransdall's excellent narrative gives insight into the minds of the white accusers and the conditions the black defendants faced.

"To Catch a Mockingbird"
A great National Geographic feature on Monroeville, Alabama.

Garrison Keillor on Harper Lee, "Good Scout"
A 2006 essay in The New York Times.