Harper Lee, born in 1926 Monroeville, Alabama, has died at the age of 89. But those 89 years were far from unaccomplished. Through her words, Lee enlightened millions of people on the difficult truth of American’s past. She inspired her audience – adults and students alike – to embrace their differences, despite society’s reaction.
Before her passion for writing and literature came about, Lee was studying law. She took classes at three different schools – Huntington College, The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, and Oxford University – before she decided that she wanted to pursue her interest in writing as a job. She moved to New York, reuniting with childhood friend Truman Capote. And here was the birth of her career as a writer.
She started by helping Capote with his work in The New Yorker, and eventually began to work with him on gathering information for In Cold Blood; she interviewed the two criminals the non-fiction book focuses on and was even invited to their execution, although she declined this. But in 1956, Lee’s Broadway friends Mr. and Mrs. Michael Martin Brown offered to support her, allowing her to devote all of her time to writing a novel – To Kill a Mockingbird.
The literary success, published in the summer of 1960, was the source of most of the author’s recognition. She got her name out there and people – writers, schoolteachers, and even US Presidents – began to know who Harper Lee was. With characters based on people in her own life, this coming-of-age novel pictures a racially divided south and its traditional values through the innocent eyes of a young Scout Finch. Awards, a film, and even more success followed the release of this book. In 1961, it won the very sought after Pulitzer Prize among other literary rewards. In 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird was turned into a film, which also won several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Actor (for Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch). Printed in forty different languages, Lee’s first published novel has sold over one million copies every year. It continues to be read in classrooms and living rooms, as people find her words to reveal a harsh truth in a comforting manner.
Lee’s second novel (a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird) titled Go Set a Watchman was published in the summer of 2015. It garnered success like its predecessor, breaking records for pre-order on Amazon.
Despite the overwhelming attention from the public, the author stayed out of the public eye as best she could. She split her time between New York and Monroeville, and spent a lot of it writing, supporting her local church, and working for charitable events. She often donated the money from her novels toward philanthropic causes. She remained humble for the rest of her lifetime.
Harper Lee died in her sleep on February 19, 2016 in the same town she was born in. But her novels and her message of the importance of change will live long after her death.