Lee, HarperNelle Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, which lies between Montgomery and Mobile. Her famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, which is similarly located. Like Scout, the narrator in the book, Lee was a tomboy in her youth and frequently got into fights. Lee’s brother was four years older than her, as Jem is four years older than Scout. Scout’s friendship with Dill is based on the author’s friendship with Truman Capote, who also became a novelist. He stayed with his aunt in Monroeville, next door to the Lees, while his mother was in New York. He and Nelle acted out stories, read books and wrote scripts together. Boo Radley is also based on one of Lee’s neighbours, a man who, like Boo, lived in a boarded-up house and left the children gifts in the tree outside his house. His father had also kept him at home for many years after he had shamed the family by getting into trouble with the law in his youth.
Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a lawyer who unsuccessfully defended two black men charged with murder. This is similar to Atticus Finch’s defence of Tom Robinson on the charge of rape. The rape case in the novel was inspired by the real-life Scottsboro Trials in Alabama, in which nine innocent black men were accused of raping two white women on board a train. The all-white jury initially found them guilty, and some members of the group spent up to 20 years in prison before finally being acquitted.
Harper Lee was famously reclusive, refusing to give interviews or appear at public events. However To Kill a Mockingbird has sold over 30 million copies and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was first published in July 1960 and became an instant hit at a time when the African American Civil Rights Movement was gathering momentum. This movement was fighting for equality for African Americans, particularly for the vote in the southern states.
In 1962 the novel was made into a film, which is still considered a masterpiece. The actor Gregory Peck has defined how many people think of Atticus.
Harper Lee’s contribution to race relations and social harmony through her novel has been recognised over the years because of its continuing popularity as a set book in schools in the USA and in the UK. This contribution was formally recognised in 2007 when George W Bush presented her with the Congressional Freedom Medal, the USA’s highest civilian award.
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