Nelle Harper Lee: American Novelist and Social Advocate

by on November 12th, 2010
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She brought us Atticus Finch, the man against whom integrity and courage is measured; Boo Radley, the misfit who taught us the value of getting to know someone before judging him; and Scout Finch, the little girl who grew a thousand lifetimes in a few short summers. She brought us a sense of discomfort about America’s checkered past and about the need to address the evils of society.

She is the great American novelist, Nelle Harper Lee.

Born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926 to mother, Frances Cunningham Finch Lee and father, Amasa Coleman Lee, Nelle Harper Lee grew up an unruly tomboy who harbored dreams of becoming a writer (National Endowment for the Arts ).

Introverted and socially awkward, Lee initially followed in her father’s footsteps, studying law at the University of Alabama. There, she served as the editor-in-chief of the school’s humor magazine, the Rammer Jammer. Eventually, Lee came to grips with her distaste for law, deciding to pursue writing instead. She moved to New York where, with the help of childhood friend, Truman Capote and Broadway composer, Michael Martin Brown, Lee worked tirelessly on the series of stories that would become the classic, To Kill a Mockingbird (Biography.com).

After years of revisions at the insistence of editor, Tay Hohoff, Lee finally produced a complete manuscript in 1959, the same year she embarked upon a journey to Kansas with friend, Truman Capote to conduct research for Capote’s ground-breaking first nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood.

Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 under the pen name, Harper Lee, a decision she made to prevent being mistaken for “Nellie” instead of Nelle. The novel drew considerable attention in its breakout years, earning acclaim from the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Literary Guild, and Reader’s Digest magazine, eventually earning the Pulitzer Prize (Biography.com).

Fans eagerly anticipated Lee’s second novel, and in 1966, there was promise of one that followed the path of Capote’s In Cold Blood , one that explored the murders of five people at the hands of an Alabama minister who was later murdered himself. But it never came. Lee resigned herself to a life of quiet solitude, To Kill a Mockingbird her only literary legacy (National Endowment for the Arts).

Not only did Lee produce one of the most popular works in the canon, but she also exposed the ugliness that ran rampant in twentieth-century American society. A child of the segregation era, Lee witnessed the cruelty afforded African Americans in her community, from daily discrimination to criminal mistreatment and murder. The plot events on which all others center – the arrest and trial of Tom Robinson, an African American man accused of raping a poor, white woman – is eerily similar in motive and outcome to the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, the case in which nine African American teenagers were falsely tried and convicted of raping two poor, white women.

It is through her character, Atticus – one whom many argue is modeled after her own father – that Lee emphasizes the importance of doing what is right in the face of overwhelming adversity. In choosing to represent Robinson despite its unpopularity among the townspeople, Atticus teaches his children, Scout and Jem, as well as Lee’s readers what it means to be truly courageous and of sound moral character.

Scout, the novel’s narrator and central figure, grows from an immature, ignorant child into an ethically grounded young woman with the help of the novel’s main characters, including her father; Miss Maudie, a woman who rejects the hypocritical, gossipy notions of her Southern female counterparts; Calpurnia, her African American housekeeper and nanny; and Boo Radley, the neighborhood outcast who saves her life from the drunk, racist Bob Ewell, father of Robinson’s accuser.

Not before or since has a novel so effectively blended true moral introspection with the excitement of a coming-of-age tale. Through Lee’s text, readers learn from society’s mistakes, pledge to be better people, and remember that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird).

Sources:
To Kill a Mockingbird Reader’s Guide – About the Author , National Endowment for the Arts
Harper Lee biography , Biography.com
Truman Capote biography , Biography.com
Scottsboro Trials , Encyclopedia of Alabama
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird


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