On Harper Lee and her Classic Novel
Harper Lee. Photo credited to Truman Capote., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It is quite difficult to write a novel. It is a bit more difficult to write a decent novel. It is extremely difficult to write a good novel. But to write a novel so great and impactful that it would instantly become a classic is damn near impossible, a one-in-a-million outcome.
That being said, American novelist Harper Lee did exactly that which is damn near impossible. She wrote a novel that became an instant classic and bestseller whose influence and reputation as a great work of literature has only increased and intensified in stature over the years since its publication. That work is none other than the classic and iconic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
To show my love for the writer and her work, this essay is dedicated to Harper Lee and her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Harper Lee (born Nelle Harper Lee) was born on 28th April 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, to Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham. She was the fourth and youngest child of Amasa and Frances, and her first name Nelle was her grandmother’s name spelled backward.
Although she would go on to use Harper Lee as her pen name, in normal life, she stuck to using her first name Nelle. Her father was a newspaper editor, politician, and lawyer, who served in the Alabama State Legislature from 1926 to 1938.
Her family was said to be members of the prominent and influential Lee family of the United States and were related to the famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
At a very young age, Harper met and quickly befriended a boy named Truman Capote, who would go on to become her lifelong friend and one of the most well-known and influential writers of his generation. Capote and Harper were neighbors in Monroeville while growing up.
It was while studying at Monroe County High School that Harper became interested in English literature and began reading books, self-admittedly getting addicted to the written word. Her love for books and literature would continue for the rest of her life.
In 1944, Harper Lee, aged 18, graduated from high school and enrolled at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, where she studied for a year before enrolling at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to study law. Her father was excited to see her study law and hoped that she would follow in her older sister Alice’s footsteps by joining his legal practice. He hoped to one day rename his firm to A.C. Lee and Daughters.
While at the university, Harper began writing for the university’s newspaper The Crimson White, and for the humor magazine Rammer Jammer. However, unfortunately for him and fortunately for us, Harper left her law studies one semester short of completing it, much to her father’s disappointment.
By the late 1940s, Harper Lee had begun writing short stories but had not yet attempted a novel. In 1949, after having decided to take writing more seriously, she followed the path of her best friend Capote and moved to New York in the hope of becoming a writer.
Upon arriving in New York, she first began working at a bookstore before taking up a job as a reservation clerk for the British Overseas Airways Corporation. While working there, she wrote essays and short stories about the people of Monroeville and even managed to get some of them published.
In late 1956, after almost seven years of moving to New York, Harper found a literary agent named Maurice Crain on Capote’s recommendation. Harper and Maurice would go on to become lifelong friends.
Knowing her passion for writing and her desire to become a writer, in December 1956 Harper’s friends gifted her a year’s worth of wages with the note, You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.
This was exactly the opportunity Harper had been looking for and she threw herself into writing her first novel.
In the spring of 1957, Harper Lee, aged 31, submitted the manuscript of her first novel, Go Set a Watchman, to her agent to send it out to publishers. The manuscript was read by editor Tay Hohoff of J.B. Lippincott & Company. Hohoff was impressed by the draft and convinced her publishing house to buy it. However, even though Hohoff loved the writing and the intent of the novel, she did not think it was ready for publication as it was then more like a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.
Over the course of the next three years, Hohoff guided Harper through rewriting and editing the draft again and again until it was finally ready to be published. The process of working on the drafts during those three years was chaotic, frustrating, and slow as they encountered several difficulties. Harper, being a first-time writer, was willing to listen to changes suggested by Hohoff and more often than not did as she was told.
When Haper disagreed with Hohoff’s suggestion, the two talked and discussed it for hours, resulting at times in Harper coming around to Hohoff’s way of thinking and at times Hohoff coming around to Harper’s way of thinking. And sometimes, they would settle upon an entirely new way of going ahead.
Hohoff would later reveal that “After a couple of false starts, the story-line, interplay of characters, and fall of emphasis grew clearer, and with each revision—there were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in her own vision of it—the true stature of the novel became evident.”
Although their collaborative effort turned out to be immensely fruitful in the end, it also proved to be quite taxing and frustrating at the time. On one occasion, Harper grew so frustrated with the progress of the novel that she threw the manuscript out of her window into the snow, and then, crying called Hohoff and told her what she had done. Hohoff instructed her to go out and pick up the manuscript immediately.
After the novel achieved its finished form, it was retitled To Kill a Mockingbird and published on 11th July 1960, when Harper was 34 years old. Neither Harper nor the publishing house thought the novel would sell many copies or achieve commercial success.
A few years later, Harper Lee would admit that she never expected the novel to have any kind of success at all, critical or commercial. In fact, she was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the critics. All she hoped for was to receive some kind of public encouragement from someone to enable her to continue writing.
But Harper got more than she had hoped for. Upon its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant bestseller and received great critical acclaim from critics and readers alike.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of a 6-year-old girl named Jean Louise Finch (nicknamed Scout), who as an adult narrates her childhood between 1933 to 1935, during the period of the Great Depression.
Scout lives in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama with her older brother Jeremy (nicknamed Jem), and their widowed father Atticus, who is a middle-aged lawyer. The family also has a black cook named Calpurnia (nicknamed Cal), who has been with the family for many years and has helped raise Scout and Jem.
Scout, like Harper Lee herself, is a tomboy who prefers spending her time with Jem and her best friend Dill Harris, rather than trying to be a lady and doing girly activities. Dill is a short smart boy who visits Maycomb every summer from Meridian, Mississippi to stay with his aunt Rachel.
Dill’s character was inspired by Capote and Jem’s character was inspired by Harper’s older brother Edwin. And much like Harper’s real father, Atticus is a well-respected small-town Alabama attorney.
Scout, Jem, and Dill are shown to be fascinated yet terrified by their reclusive neighbor Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, who, Capote would later admit, was based on a real man who lived just down the road from them. And although the adults of Maycomb seem to hesitate to talk of Boo, the children fantasize about getting him out of his house. They eventually find out that someone has been leaving small gifts for them in a tree outside Boo’s house and that someone was Boo himself. Capote would confirm this was true as well.
Even though the novel depicts the life of Scout, Jem, and Dill with all their childhood activities and antics, the central theme of the novel primarily deals with the issues of rape and racial injustice, and inequality in the South.
When a black man named Tom Robinson is accused of raping a young white woman named Mayella Ewell, Judge Taylor appoints Atticus to defend Tom. Atticus agrees to defend Tom as best he can against the wishes of the citizens of Maycomb.
As this news spreads across town, other children begin teasing Scout and Jem by calling Atticus a nigger-lover, provoking Scout to defend her father’s honor by fighting them, even though Atticus has told her not to.
One night Atticus comes across a group of men who intend to lynch Tom, but before the matter could grow worse, the children happen to show up and Scout recognizes a classmate’s father and talks to him, resulting in the mob dispersing without doing any harm.
As all these instances take place, Scout struggles to understand their meaning at the time. Though she matures from age 6 to age 9 throughout the novel, she is depicted as being somewhat idealistic and naive, even though she begins to understand human nature and racism in her town a bit more. These instances confuse her, and not knowing how to handle such situations, she resorts to fighting and talking to Atticus about the things she hears.
On the other hand, Jem, who is four years older than Scout, is shown to be developing into adult maturity throughout the novel and seems to have a better understanding of the issues in his town and the instances taking place against them and Atticus. Jem even tries to explain things to Scout throughout the novel.
During Tom’s trial, Atticus does not want Scout, Jem, and Dill to be present in the courtroom. However, the three of them manage to make their way into the courtroom and, after finding no seats available on the main floor, get invited by the pastor of Cal’s church, Rev. Sykes, to watch the trial from the colored balcony.
Capote would later reveal that when they were young, Harper and he would often go along with Harper’s father to watch trials.
As Tom’s trial proceeds, Atticus establishes that Mayella and her father Bob Ewell are lying and that it was Mayella who made sexual advances toward Tom for which she was beaten by her father. And although the popular opinion of Maycomb citizens turns against the Ewells and they start calling the Ewells ‘white trash’, the jury nevertheless declares Tom guilty and convicts him of rape.
Jem’s faith in justice is shaken after witnessing the unfair trial and verdict, but Atticus hopes to get the verdict overturned. However, before he could attempt to do so, Tom is shot multiple times and killed while trying to escape from prison.
The reputation and credibility of the Ewells are destroyed by this trial and Bob vows to take revenge. First, he spits on Atticus’ face, then he tries to break into the judge’s house, and then he intimidates Tom’s widow. At last, he attacks Jem and Scout as they are walking back home at night after a school Halloween pageant. In the struggle that ensues, Jem’s arm is broken before a mysterious man comes to their rescue. The man carries Jem home, where Scout, who is the only one to have seen Boo, recognizes the man to be Boo Radley.
When Sheriff Tate (who is a friend of Atticus) arrives, he discovers Bob Ewell was killed by a knife wound. Atticus suspects Jem was responsible for Bob’s death, but Sheriff Tate believes it was Boo. And in order to protect Boo from public exposure resulting from a criminal trial, Tate decides to report that Bob fell on his own knife during the attack.
Although it is said that Tom’s unsuccessful defense in the novel was inspired by the infamous Scottsboro Boys case, in which nine black men were convicted of raping two white women on negligible evidence, it was never really confirmed by Harper Lee herself.
Some scholars believe that the murder of Emmet Till (who was accused of flirting with a white woman in 1955 in Mississippi) was the inspiration for Tom’s character. This, too, has never been confirmed by Harper.
Others speculate that the novel’s story was inspired by a trial covered by Harper’s father’s newspaper, of a black man named Walter Lett who was accused of raping a white woman near Monroeville, when Harper was around 10 years old. Lett was convicted and sentenced to death before his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after a series of letters appeared claiming that Lett had been falsely accused and was actually innocent.
Again, unfortunately, this theory too was never confirmed by Harper, leading many scholars to believe that Tom’s character and the trial were inspired by multiple events.
Harper Lee herself always downplayed and dismissed the autobiographical elements and parallels in the novel, stating that it was not an autobiography but rather an example of how a writer must write about what he knows and write it truthfully.
To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant classic of modern American literature, winning the 1961 Pulitzer Prize while in its 41st week on the bestseller list. The novel’s success made Harper famous and she went on a long publicity tour, giving interviews and talks, visiting schools, and attending events honoring the novel.
The attention Harper received made her a literary celebrity. By 1964, she was so frustrated and fed up with all the attention that she began turning down invitations for interviews, talks, and attending events. She was tired of the same questions and the intense attention on her private life. Being a somewhat shy and private person by nature, she detested her fame.
Over the years, the novel has remained a bestseller and has become required reading in schools across the United States. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential novels of the 20th century and is considered the most widely-read book dealing with race, class, courage, gender roles, and compassion in America, leaving a massive impact on American literature.
The novel is so acclaimed and popular that in 2006 British librarians ranked it above the Bible as a book every adult must read before they die.
Interestingly enough, in spite of its classic status in the American literary canon and its widespread use in education, the novel has not been critically analyzed or examined to the extent other American classics have been. Critical analysis and interpretation of the novel have been sparse.
This makes the novel a curious case among classics, and many critics suspect that the reason for such a lack of literary examination is primarily due to its best-selling nature, thereby indicating that a major portion of the general readership has read, understood, and enjoyed the novel for years without feeling the need for any interpretation of it to understand it better.
Harper Lee would go on to assist screenwriter Horton Foote in developing the screenplay for the academy award-winning film adaptation, for which actor Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. Harper became so close to Peck’s family that Peck’s grandson, Harper Peck Voll, was named after her.
On the morning of 19th February 2016, Harper Lee, aged 89, died in her sleep in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
Unfortunately, To Kill a Mockingbird would be Harper’s first and only proper novel. In July 2015, an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was published as Go Set a Watchman, which is set some 20 years after the time period depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout returns as an adult from New York to visit her father in Maycomb, Alabama.
To Kill a Mockingbird still remains a bestseller to this very day, with over 40 million copies in print. In 1999, it was voted the Best Novel of the Century in a poll by the Library Journal.
Rest assured, even with just a single novel, Harper Lee has left an indelible mark on American and world literature.