Harper Lee (born Nelle Harper Lee) was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama. After attending the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery, she transferred to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa where she pursued English literature.
Lee spent a year working towards the university’s law degree as an undergrad, but decided that writing was her true passion. At the age of 23, Lee arrived in New York City in 1949. In 1956, Lee received a gift from the family of Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Martin Brown, and they supported her in New York for a year. Lee quit her job and began writing full time, working on a manuscript that turned into To Kill a Mockingbird.
Her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was published in 1960 and instantly became a classic American novel. In 1961, her novel won the Pulitzer Prize and in 1998, the Library Journal declared To Kill a Mockingbird the best novel of the 20th century. She was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contribution to literature.
But following the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee abruptly stopped writing. In a letter sent to Oprah Winfrey’s magazine from Lee, she said that “in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.” Lee stopped giving interviews and returned to a solitary life in Monroeville.
As Telegraph explains, “that detachment is, clearly, necessary to her. It is the paradox of the novel that it could not have been written by someone in love with literary fame; that the fame it achieved and deserved killed off any prospect of a succeeding masterpiece.” It seems that this fame caused Lee to stop writing, and for decades she published no further work.
Back in 1967, Lee had written a prequel for To Kill a Mockingbird that she didn’t publish. The manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was submitted to Lee’s editor in ‘67, not long after the publication of her first novel. Lee believed that the manuscript was lost, explain that “after much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication.”
Go Set a Watchman abruptly appeared on bookshelves in July 2015, published by HarperCollins. While some readers were quick to share accolades with Lee about a second novel, others questioned her competence following decades of her reluctance to publish anything.
The New York Times explains that “in May 2013, her name [Lee] appeared in news reports and when she filed a lawsuit accusing her literary agent, Samuel Pinkus, of duping her into assigning the novel’s copyright to his company after a stroke she suffered in 2007 left her with impaired hearing and eyesight.”
While Lee’s mental competency was questioned, the novel had sold 1.6 million copies as of January 2016. In 2015, it also made the US bestseller list. Preorders alone turned it into an instant bestselling novel.
On February 19, 2016, Harper Lee died in her sleep at the age of 89. For members of the literary community, the release of Go Set a Watchman has not diminished Lee’s impact on the literary community. Today, To Kill a Mockingbird is still considered among one of America’s classics.
Video: In 1964, Harper Lee talked with WQXR host Roy Newquist for an interview in New York. For the first time, that interview is now available to listen to online. The interview is the only known recording of Lee discussing To Kill a Mockingbird, among other topics, and one of the last interviews she would ever give.