Study Guide

Harper Lee Biography

  • 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."

  • Childhood

    Nelle Harper Lee was born 28 April 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of four children (three girls and a boy) born to Amasa Coleman Lee and Francis Cunningham Finch Lee. Monroeville was a small town, similar in many ways to Maycomb, Alabama, the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird. Both had stately courthouses, neighbors who knew everyone's business, and a mysterious, reclusive resident who fascinated and terrified local children. Lee stated that Mockingbird was not an autobiographical novel, but that she borrowed scenes and characters from her childhood to flesh out Maycomb's landscape.  

    When Lee was in kindergarten, she befriended an eccentric young boy named Truman Streckfus Persons. The two bonded instantly and maintained a lifelong friendship. Lee based her character of Dill, the oddly articulate child fabulist, on her good friend Truman. When Truman wrote his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, under the pen name Truman Capote, he based the tomboyish character of Isabel on his friend Harper Lee.

    Lee was also a lawyer's daughter, like the child protagonist of Mockingbird, Scout. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, once defended two black men, a father and son, who were accused of murdering a white store clerk. Like Atticus Finch, he was unable to secure an acquittal for his defendants and the two men were hanged. Soon after, he left criminal law to become a title lawyer. At that time in American history, people of different races were not equally protected under the law. In the South, Jim Crow laws mandated segregation in all public facilities from 1876 until 1965, and therefore sanctioned discrimination against black people throughout Lee's childhood. Rosa Parks did not refuse to give up her seat on the bus until Harper Lee was nearly 30. Fear and a lack of understanding between the races meant that when a black person went on trial, he was often judged not by a jury of his peers but by twelve white men who had grown up believing that black people were inherently different from them—and not for the better.

    We don't know if Lee shared Scout's keen perceptions as a child, but as a lawyer's daughter she certainly would've been aware of several cases that demonstrated the inequities of the pre-Civil Rights Movement South. In addition to her father's case, the Lee family would surely have talked about the famous Scottsboro Boys Trial, which began in 1931. In that case, which may have inspired Tom Robinson's trial in Mockingbird, two impoverished white women accused nine young black men of rape. Eight of the boys were convicted and spent years in prison before one of the women confessed to making up the story. The trial made headlines and drew passionate opinions from all sides. In May 1931, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a young woman named Hollace Ransdall down to Scottsboro, Alabama, to investigate the case. After interviewing dozens of residents, both white and black, Ransdall produced an insightful report that captured the violent emotions the trial stirred up:

    It is hard to conceive that anything but kindly feelings and gentle manners toward all mankind can stir the hearts of the citizens of Scottsboro. It came as a shock, therefore, to see these pleasant faces stiffen, these laughing mouths grow narrow and sinister, those soft eyes become cold and heard because the question was mentioned of a fair trial for nine young N****es terrified and quite alone. Suddenly these kindly-looking mouths were saying the most frightful things. … to see these men and women transformed by blind, unreasoning antipathy so that their lips parted and their eyes glowed with lust for the blood of black children, was a sight to make one untouched by the spell of violent prejudice shrink.

  • Writing Mockingbird

    The writing of To Kill A Mockingbird was a slow and painful process. At one point, Lee grew so frustrated she opened the window of her New York apartment and hurled the entire manuscript into the snow (at her editor's orders, she later retrieved it). Meanwhile, real-life events were helping shape the fictional world of Maycomb. On 28 August 1955, a 14-year-old African-American boy, Emmett Till, was savagely beaten to death by a mob after he allegedly whistled at a white woman. Three months later, a 42-year-old African-American bus passenger named Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, after she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The outrage surrounding these two events led to a series of coordinated protests, whose organizers included a charismatic preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. The Civil Rights Movement was beginning to roll.

    Then, on 11 July 1960, a novel was published that reminded everyone of what they were fighting for. To Kill A Mockingbird tells the story of an honorable Alabama lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends a black man named Tom Robinson against a false accusation of rape. Atticus's daughter, 8-year-old Scout, narrates the story, and is one of few to recognize the injustice of the race and class struggle taking place in her town. Mockingbird was an instant success. "Author Lee, 34, an Alabaman, has written her first novel with all of the tactile brilliance and none of the preciosity generally supposed to be standard swamp-warfare issue for Southern writers. The novel is an account of an awakening to good and evil," wrote Time magazine. "Novelist Lee's prose has an edge that cuts through cant, and she teaches the reader an astonishing number of useful truths about little girls and about Southern life."In 1961, Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize—quite an accomplishment for a first-time novelist. The following year it was made into an Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck, who became one of Lee's close friends. Mockingbird went on to sell 30 million copies in 18 languages. Harper Lee's book had become an American treasure.

  • Recluse

    It wasn't immediately clear that Harper Lee would withdraw from public life as thoroughly as she did. In the years following To Kill A Mockingbird publication, she wrote a handful of essays for magazines like Vogue and McCall's. She also worked (uncredited) on another American classic, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. In 1959, Lee accompanied Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to help him research a story he was working on about the murders of a wealthy farming family, the Clutters. Capote recalled, "I went with a lifelong friend, Harper Lee. She is a gifted woman, courageous, and with a warmth that instantly kindles most people, however suspicious or dour."blank">To Kill A Mockingbird, what more would you need to say?

  • Family

    Father:Amasa Coleman Lee (1880-1962)
    Mother: Frances Cunningham Finch Lee (?-1951)
    Sister:Alice Lee (1911-2014)
    Sister: Louise Lee (b. ?)
    Brother: Edwin Coleman Lee (1920-1951)

  • Education

    Huntingdon College (1944-1945)
    University of Alabama (1945-1949)
    Oxford University (summer study)

  • Work Experience

    Reservation clerk, Eastern Air Lines & British Overseas Airways Corporation (1950s)

  • Novels

  • Awards

    Pulitzer Prize (1961)
    Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1961)
    Alabama Library Association Award (1961)
    Bestsellers Paperback of the Year Award (1962)
    Member, National Council on the Arts (1966)
    Best Novel of the Century, Library Journal (1999)
    Alabama Humanities Award (2002)
    ATTY Award, Spector Gadon & Rosen Foundation (2005)
    Los Angeles Public Library Literary Award (2005)
    Honorary degree, University of Notre Dame (2006)
    American Academy of Arts and Letters (2007)
    Presidential Medal of Freedom (2007)