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A woman who lived in Alabama in the 1960s had no choice but to watch as people openly discriminated against their African-American counterparts. She wanted people to hear her voice and understand why the world is wrong, and to use her writing as a way to spread her message. Her words deeply touched the hearts of many, both young and old. Her thoughts and ideology helped us to better the way we live our lives. She single handedly addressed and diffused the vile and horrific treatment of those who were born differently than what most believed was “normal”.
Her name was Harper Lee.
Nelle Harper, who goes by Harper Lee, was a famous American writer born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926. Her mother, Francis Finch Lee, found joy in completing crossword puzzles and playing the piano in her free time. Sadly, she often found herself getting ill and died in 1951. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a well-off attorney and state legislature.
He also assisted Lee in find inspiration for her novel and her character, Atticus Finch, was based on him. He died in 1962 (Chicago Tribune).
When Lee was a child, she often played with a boy named Truman Capote, who later became a novelist as well. In 1959, Truman left for to Kansas, bringing along Harper, in order to investigate the murder of four members of the Clutter family. She worked as his “assistant researchist,” interviewing citizens from the town of the deceased along with Capote. He later used this experience as inspiration for his novel, Cold Blood (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
After completing high school, Lee studied law at the University of Alabama, as well as Oxford University in England, as an exchange student, for the duration of one summer. After this, she made the decision to head for New York City without ever earning a degree. There, she worked as an airline reservation agent for a short while. She then received a sum of money one Christmas from a couple from New York that she was on friendly terms with that contained a note stating that she would be able to leave work for one year and should pursue her interest in writing (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
In July 1960, Lee at 34, published her critically acclaimed and influential novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, a story about Atticus Finch, a widowed father and attorney, who defends a black man who was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a caucasian woman. It is said to have been ahead of its time, receiving glowing reviews from many who believe that Lee’s forward thinking during her era was deserving of much praise. In fact, this book spent more than two years on the bestseller’s list and recieved a majority of positive reviews (Chicago Tribune).
To Kill a Mockingbird was set in Depression-era Alabama, much like Lee’s own life, and introduced many subjects that were considered very controversial and were rarely spoken about at the time, such as racism, rape, and reclusiveness. It also helps us understand the importance of good morals, and helps show how to teach children these morals simply by observation (The Daily Telegraph).
In the beginning, some people were led to believe that Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote, assisted Lee in the writing process of To Kill a Mockingbird because of his status as a writer and his status with her as a close friend. “He absolutely was not involved. That’s the biggest lie ever told.” Says Lee’s sister, Alice Lee (Chicago Tribune).
After publishing her book, Lee divided her time between Monroeville and New York and was often labeled as reclusive, due to her reluctance and denial to speak with others about her writing. She spent her free time visiting restaurants and art museums, watching sports, and reading. She was always intrigued by the history of the United States and England. Her favorite historian writer was a British man named Thomas Macaulay, and her other favorite authors include Welty and William Faulkner, Mark Twain and Jane Austen (Chicago Tribune).
According to her sister, Alice Lee, who managed her financial affairs, she regularly donated large sums of money to charity (Chicago Tribune).
“She would give you the shirt off her back, but do not take it without permission,” said a friend of Lee’s, Hilda Butts (Chicago Tribune).
When Lee published her second book, Go Set a Watchman, there was a lot of skepticism about whether or not she was sound enough to have given permission for the book to be released. When the manuscript was introduced to her publisher, Lee had been deaf and nearly blind due to having a stroke in 2007. She had been living in a sheltered accommodation when she was asked for permission to have the book released, which she affirmed. However, according to Alice, Harper would sign anything given to her by someone she trusted (The Daily Telegraph).
Go Set a Watchman is a story about the characters of To Kill a Mockingbird’s lives after the circumstances of the first book. It’s less of a novel and more of a collection of short stories, but is still just as enjoyable. She had written these stories before the creation of her first book, but never published them. She says that Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. It is simply the parent book about the life after the events of The Mockingbird, which allowed the original novel to be produced. It is a bit more adult, though, because it is told from the perspective of an adult, rather than a child, due to it’s later setting and its narrators growth (The Daily Telegraph).
Harper Lee is said to have had quite the sharp mouth. She didn’t sugarcoat things in interviews and quickly corrected people when they made mistakes talking about her books. She, while fiery, was also a very kind and selfless woman. She was always polite to the strangers who approached her on the street to discuss her novels, but soon grew weary and tired at the constant badgering she received from both fans and reporters. Some people would go so far as to drive by her home and sometimes knock on her door. She was not fond of these people (Chicago Tribune).
Some have also attempted to take the events of To Kill a Mockingbird and relate them to current events, for which Lee has expressed distaste. She believed that their story should stay in the 30s and not be dragged on through time. While situations such as the ones in her novels still occur, she believes there is a distinct separation of time periods (Chicago Tribune).
Lee was said to have dressed a bit thrifty, having been raised in the Depression. She didn’t waste money where she didn’t need to. She believed that you should save money where you can in order to be able to assist those who are truly in need in the future (Chicago Tribune).
She was also considered to have been a bit anti-social, and most people visiting her hometown didn’t recognize her. Dale Welch, a librarian who customarily had Lee over for coffee, said this simply isn’t true. Lee just preferred to spend her time with people she enjoyed, rather than engaging in activities with those who were strangers to her. Along with her apparent antisocial tendencies, she and her sister both did not partake in social media, and strayed away from technology overall. They hardly even watched television. This added on even more to Harper’s elusiveness (Chicago Tribune).
After the release of her second book, Lee continued to live a simple, enjoyable life. She kept donating towards charities and lived the way she always had. Her lifestyle remained uninfluenced by her fame. She sadly died at age 89 on February 19, 2016, in her sleep at an assisted living facility in Monroeville, which she had been living in since her stroke in 2007 (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Harper Lee’s legacy will be remembered throughout the course of time. Her novels taught lessons that others feared to address, and she felt no shame for her views. Her stories were the pinnacle of her time, and she brought light upon those who were uneducated and simple-minded. Her words reflected her kindness and selflessness, and so did her actions. Lee was more than just a writer, she was and continues to be an inspiration and a beacon of hope.
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