Harper Lee Biography

Harper Lee, a Brief Biography
Harper Lee
Photo by Truman Capote, taken from 1st edition dust jacket, courtesy Printers Row Fine & Rare Books
This short biography was prepared by feature speaker Charles J. Shields.

Nelle Harper Lee (her first name is her grandmother’s spelled backward) was born April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama a small town of a few thousand residents, located in the southwest corner of the state. Her father, Amasa Cole “A.C.” Lee was an attorney and enterprising businessman; her mother, Frances Cunningham Finch Lee was a homemaker. Nelle was the youngest of four children: Alice (b. 1911), Francis (b. 1916), and Edwin (b. 1920). With exception of Edwin, a decorated World War II veteran, all of the Lee children are living.

The Lees have been Southerners for several generations, although they are not directly related to Robert E. Lee, as has been reported many times over the years. The first American Lee in their line was John Lee, Esq., born in 1695 in Nanesmonds, Virginia and later a wealthy landowner. His descendants migrated to Dale County, Alabama shortly before the Civil War. Nelle’s grandfather, Cader A. Lee fought with the 15th Alabama regiment in 22 battles, including Gettysburg.

On Nelle’s mother's side, the family started out in Virginia, but that is practically all that can be gleaned from courthouse records. They resurface in Monroe County, Alabama in the early 1800s. Nelle’s grandfather, James Cunningham Finch, the postmaster of Finchburg grew up on his parents’ farm near Belle’s Landing; but his wife’s family, Ellen Williams, owned a plantation nearby about halfway between Montgomery to the north and Mobile to the south. Nelle’s description of it as “Finch’s landing” in To Kill a Mockingbird parallels her grandmother’s ancestral home almost exactly.

Mockingbird Book CoverPostmaster Finch and his wife tried to raise their children in circumstances as elevating they could afford. When their daughters— Nelle’s mother Frances, and her sister, Alice— reached 15, their parents enrolled them in the new Alabama Girls’ Industrial School in Montevallo, a progressive institution for whites. Frances Finch became an excellent pianist.

Nelle’s parents met while her father was a bookkeeper at the Flat Creek sawmill near Finchburg. The couple married in the bride’s home on June 22, 1910.

1n 1911, a year after their marriage, the Lees moved to Monroeville, then a town of only 500 residents, half white and half black. It was the county seat, however, with an enormous courthouse. After “studying for the law,” as it was called, A. C. Lee became an attorney with the firm of Bugg, Barnett & Jones. He was a title lawyer, not a criminal lawyer, although he was once appointed to defend two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Both his clients, a father and son, were hanged. Nelle may have been thinking about the pain this caused her father, when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.

As a child, Nelle Harper Lee was a hellion. She fought on the playground and talked back to teachers. The reason for her misbehavior was that she was bored with school. In addition, she disliked expectations that she conform. The character Scout in the novel is like the author herself as a youngster.

She did have a good friend next door, however: Truman Streckfus Persons, later Truman Capote after his mother remarried. The two were only about a year apart in age and both loved reading. “Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head,” Nelle would later write of him, when Truman became Dill, the lonely boy next door in Mockingbird. “[H]e preferred his own twilight world, a world where babies slept, waiting to be gathered like morning lilies.”

Nelle’s growing up in Monroeville was unremarkable except for what she heard, read, saw, and thought about. Although her family was upper-middle class, the impact of the Depression turned Monroeville into a narrow world. “We had to use our own devices in our play, for our entertainment,” she said later. “We didn't have much money. Nobody had any money. We didn't have toys, nothing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imagination most of the time.”

In high school she was fortunate to have a gifted English teacher, Gladys Watson-Burkett, who introduced her to challenging literature and the rigors of writing well. Nelle’s favorite authors became 19th century British authors, and her favorite of all, Jane Austen. Nelle once remarked that her ambition as a writer was to “become the Jane Austen of south Alabama.”

She spent her freshman year of college at Huntingdon College, a Methodist school for women in Montgomery, but transferred to the University of Alabama in 1945. Unable to fit in with the sorority she joined, she found a better community of friends on the campus newspaper. Eventually, she became editor in chief of the Rammer Jammer, a quarterly humor magazine on campus. Her junior year, she entered the law school, but she “loathed” it. Despite her father’s hopes that she would become an attorney like her older sister Alice and practice in Monroeville, Nelle went to New York in 1949 to become a writer.

She spent eight years at odd jobs until friends loaned her enough money to live on for six months so that she could write fulltime. Even so, the manuscript she showed Tay Hohoff, an editor at J. B. Lippincott, resembled a string of stories instead of the novel, Atticus, she intended. Two and a half years of rewriting followed under Hohoff’s guidance. Once, Lee became so frustrated, she threw everything she’d written out the window of her apartment. Hohoff admonished her over the phone to go outside immediately and pick it all up, which she did.

At last To Kill a Mockingbird was completed and slated for publication in July 1960. She opted for the name “Harper Lee” on the cover because she didn’t want to be referred to as “Nellie.” In the meantime, Truman Capote asked her to accompany him to Kansas as his “assistant researchist” on a project for the New Yorker magazine. Their intense partnership as they researched the murder of farm family in Holcomb, Kansas resulted in In Cold Blood (1966) one of the outstanding nonfiction works of post-World War II literature. Truman slighted Nelle, however, by hardly acknowledging her help.

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 to highly favorable reviews and quickly climbed the bestseller lists to where it remained for over 80 weeks. In 1961, the novel was awarded the Pulitzer prize. A film adaptation was released in 1962 starring Gregory Peck and received three Academy Awards.

Although fans of To Kill a Mockingbird waited for the second novel about a Southern town that Miss Lee said she was writing, it never came. She also researched a book similar to In Cold Blood about a part-time reverend in Alexander City, Alabama accused of killing five people for their insurance money and later murdered himself by a victim’s relative. But she dropped the project in the 1990s.

Today, Nelle Harper Lee spends a few months each year in New York and the rest of the time in Monroeville, Alabama with her sister, Alice, a highly regarded attorney in Alabama who until recently still practiced law. “Atticus in a skirt,” as Nelle has called her sister, was instrumental in integrating Methodist churches in the South.

To date, To Kill a Mockingbird has sold more than 30 million copies in 18 languages, making it the most popular novel of the 20th century. Miss Lee, however, has not given a formal interview since the mid-1960s.