To Kill a Mockingbird has often been considered a gateway book to reading. In other words, it was the kind of required reading that would turn unsuspecting students into voracious readers from that point forward. Author Nelle Harper Lee, born on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, wrote a book that although was considered well-written, was not expected to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Perhaps you’ve read both of Lee’s novels by now, or have seen the movie based on the first book. Published in 1960 by Warner Books in New York City, To Kill a Mockingbird’s plot follows a lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defends a black man accused of assaulting a white woman in the south during the Great Depression. Although Lee denied the book was autobiographical, her childhood friend and fellow novelist Truman Capote gave her away. He confirmed the story was true, except for the part about Lee’s mother dying in infancy, which was said to be a metaphor for her mother’s emotional absence.
Lee was the youngest of four children. Her mother, Frances Cunningham Finch suffered from mental illness (possibly bipolar disorder), and didn’t leave the house too often. Because she was incapable, most of the child-rearing was left to their father, Amassa Coleman Lee, a lawyer, who was also a member of the Alabama state legislature and owned part of the local newspaper.
The book became a classic, selling 30 million copies worldwide, and later became an Oscar award-winning movie. In high school, Lee developed an interest in English literature. After graduating in 1944, she went to the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery, where she went on to write short stories, many focusing on racial issues, not unlike her father faced in his law practice.
After college, Lee moved to New York and began writing about characters from her hometown. Capote introduced Lee to his agent, and before long, she was able to stop working and become a full-time writer. Lee was overwhelmed by the generosity of her friends, who pooled their resources and gave her enough money to live for a year as a Christmas gift.
Eventually, she transferred to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and was accepted into the law school in her junior year. But she decided studying law was interfering with her true calling. One summer at Oxford University in England made her sure she should drop out of law school and pursue her dream. She may not have been fully aware, but Lee was in the process of creating a life worth living.
In 1949, she moved to New York City, where she struggled, but ultimately reunited with Capote, who acted as her mentor. Rather than doing what her family and others thought she should do, she followed her passion and didn’t give up. At times, when she might have been discouraged by Capote, who resented her success, and ultimately strained their relationship with his alcoholism and drug abuse, she persevered. She marketed her book and became a role model for writers everywhere for her success of selling more than 30 million copies of her book in 40 different languages. According to The New York Times, Lee was quoted in 1964 as saying, “I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing … is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this — the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.”
The conclusion to this story is that fans had to wait almost a lifetime for Lee’s second book, but they may never have gotten their hands on book two, which is thought to be a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman was released in July 2015, as Lee sat in a nursing home suffering the aftermath of a stroke for a little less than eight months before her death. The book had only been out a week before selling more than 1.1 million digital and physical copies in North America. This leads me to believe that Lee’s legacy, although she may have preferred not to publish the second book if given a choice, is likely never to die.