“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.” — Harper Lee, Newquist
Born in 1926 in Alabama, American novelist Nelle Harper Lee was named after Dr. William W. Harper, a paediatrician who saved her sister’s life. Her father was a former newspaper editor-turned-lawyer, whose experiences would feed into Lee’s major literary triumph, To Kill A Mockingbird.
She became interested in English literature at high school, and went to Huntingdon College for a year before transferring to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to study law. Despite her father’s encouragement, and even a fully financed trip to attend summer school in Oxford in the UK, Lee did not graduate with a degree.
She moved to New York in 1949, working as an airline reservation agent and writing fiction in her spare time. She eventually found an agent in 1956, after writing several long stories, and some of her friends gave her a year’s wages with a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
She took up their offer and by the following spring, she had finished the manuscript that was then titled Go Set A Watchman. Lee’s editor at J. B. Lippincott Company, Tay Hohoff, recognized her talent and they worked closely together through several drafts of the manuscript before To Kill A Mockingbird was finally released in 1960. The novel was an instant success, and it won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Scout, the tomboy main character in the book, is the daughter of a well-respected lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. Much of the book was inspired by Lee’s own childhood; her father defended two black men accused of murdering a shopkeeper, and both were hanged.
Many of the characters were based on people she grew up with: her friend and neighbour Truman Capote is thought to have been fictionalized as Scout’s friend Dill, and Capote himself believed Boo Radley was based on someone living in their village: “He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us. We used to go and get those things out of the trees. Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true.”
The novel was turned into a film of the same title starring Gregory Peck, who won an Oscar for his appearance. Lee described it as “one of the best translations of a book to film ever made,” and she remained friends with Peck and his family for the rest of her life.
In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Lee to the National Council on the Arts, but she otherwise withdrew from the spotlight and accepted very few requests for interviews and public appearances. She wrote a few essays and worked on a novel, The Long Goodbye, but it remained unfinished.
In an interview with an Australian newspaper in 2011, Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts said Lee had shared with him why she never wrote again: “Two reasons: one, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
But in 2015, to much surprise, Go Set A Watchman was published as a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. It was generally well received, although many questioned its positioning as a sequel – parts of it were clearly an early version of To Kill A Mockingbird, and there were some passages reproduced verbatim. Several of Lee’s friends expressed concern about the publication. In an article in The Washington Post, Marja Mills, Lee’s biographer and friend, wrote: “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” The novel was another success and hit the bestseller lists.
Less than a year later, Lee died in her sleep, aged 89. To Kill A Mockingbird is still a bestseller, with more than 30 million copies in print, and it’s a regular feature on high school reading lists around the world. Despite her limited output, Lee received many prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature.
Why is she on the list?
Every author on the list has earned their place through scores assigned to various prizes, sales, reader ratings and expert collections.
- Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
- Best-selling books – Wikipedia (various sources)
- Nielsen Book Scan UK sales – all-time best-selling books
- Goodreads Best Books Ever
- The Best 100 Authors
- The Ideal Library
- The Greatest Books of All Time
- 100 books to read in a lifetime
- 100 Greatest novels of all time
- The 100 best novels written in English
- Book awards: The 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians
Read about Lee
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields
The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
Image: Wikimedia Commons