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Biography: Harper Lee

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Biography: Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in

Monroeville, Alabama. Her father, Amasa

Coleman Lee, was a lawyer, newspaper editor, and

state senator during her formative years. Harper

Lee’s childhood in a small Southern town decades

before the triumph of the Civil Rights movement

provided all the material she needed for her

celebrated, and only, novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Though narrated by a child, Mockingbird was not a

story Lee could have written without experience in

the larger adult world. She studied at Huntingdon

College, the University of Alabama (where she

never finished a law degree), and at Oxford

University in England. In 1950, she moved to

New York City, where she worked as an airline

reservation clerk. Convinced she had a story to tell

about her own magical childhood, she moved to a

cold-water apartment and, in earnest, took up the

life of a struggling writer.

In 1957, her attempt to publish the novel failed.

On the advice of an editor, she decided to turn

what was a manuscript of short stories into a

longer, more coherent narrative about the

Depression-era South. She gained valuable

inspiration when, in 1959, she traveled to Kansas

with childhood friend Truman Capote (the

inspiration for Dill in Mockingbird). There she

helped Capote research In Cold Blood, a novel

published to wide acclaim in 1966.

To Kill a Mockingbird, finally published in 1960,

was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. The

following year the book was adapted as a movie

with an Academy Award-winning screenplay by

Horton Foote. Virtually overnight Lee became a

literary sensation. A resolution was passed in her

honor by the Alabama legislature in 1961, and in

1966 she was named to the National Council of

the Arts by President Lyndon Johnson.

In the last 40 years, Lee has received numerous

honors, including several honorary university

degrees. Most recently she was awarded the Los

Angeles Public Library Literary Award in 2005.

Expectations notwithstanding, Lee has never

published another book. Her entire published

oeuvre consists of a brilliant novel and

miscellaneous articles, mostly from the 1960s.

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