On February 19, 2016, Nelle Harper Lee died in her home town of Monroeville Alabama. She was 89. She wrote a single published novel in 1960, and it became an instant best seller. It was followed by one of the great American films starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham as Scout. Robert Duvall, in his first feature length role, following a string of TV appearances, played Boo Radley. Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Her novel is considered standard reading for high school students all over the country. I read it for the first time as a sophomore in high school. Recently, a second novel, actually a first draft of Mockingbird, which had been rejected by the publisher, found its way into print amid much controversy.
Nelle – her grandmother’s name spelled backwards – was born on April 28, 1926. She was the youngest of four children of Frances Coleman Lee and Amasa Coleman Lee. Her mother was a homemaker, and A.C. Lee, as he was known, was a newspaper editor and proprietor, and practiced law. He also served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938. All of her siblings preceded her in death.
She attended Monroe County High School, where she developed a love of English literature. She then attended the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery for a year. She then transferred to the University of Alabama where she studied law while writing for the university newspaper. After a few years, she left college without a degree.
In 1949, she moved to New York City, where she worked as an airline reservationist. She began writing a series of short stories. In 1956, she found an agent. Shortly thereafter, she received a check from some friends for a year’s wages with the following note, "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas."
In 1957 she delivered the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman to the prestigious Philadelphia publisher J.B. Lippincott. Her editor found the “spark of a true writer in every line,” however, she felt the novel – a series of anecdotes -- was unfit for publication. After several re-writes, To Kill a Mockingbird was born. As her fame grew, she began to withdraw from the public eye and became a recluse. Her neighbors in Monroeville were secretive about her habits and whereabouts. She was awarded several honorary degrees, but she declined to talk at those events. In 2007, Nelle was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In a 1964 interview, Lee said, “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.” Thank you, Nelle, for many, many years of pleasurable reading. We will never forget you, Atticus, Scout, Calpurnia, Dill, Boo, and Tom Robinson.