Harper Lee 28.4.26 – 19.2.16

February 20, 2016

USA author, Harper Lee has died:

. . .Nelle Harper Lee (Nelle was Ellen, the name of her maternal grandmother, spelled backwards), the youngest of four children, was born and grew up in Monroeville, a town of fewer than 3,000 souls. It was a two-hour drive to reach the next town. The streets were unpaved and there were few cars and no traffic lights. Monroeville in Lee’s childhood was racially segregated and Monroe county was “dry”, though bootleggers passed by now and then. . . 

Lee got out of Monroeville as soon as she decently could. She followed Alice to Huntingdon, a private Methodist college for women in Montgomery. She stuck it out for a year, then in 1946 transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she studied literature, history, journalism and law. The university was renowned for its dedication to football, and while there Lee wrote satirical articles in an undergraduate magazine and belonged to the Chi Omega sorority.

She enrolled in the law school of the University of Alabama in 1947. There were no more than a dozen women among the 100 entrants, and Lee, who usually dressed down (no make-up, her hair pulled back behind her ears, wearing a loose jumper, a skirt and loafers) made no friends and was thoroughly disengaged. . .  Her father, sensing that his daughter was losing interest in the law, encouraged her to take up a place on an overseas exchange programme. . . 

She returned to Tuscaloosa for her second year at law school but left in 1949 without taking a degree. By late 1950 she had settled in New York and worked in a series of low-paid jobs (bookstore clerk, airline reservation clerk) while beginning to write. After several years of frustration, a friend of Capote’s, Michael Brown, gave Lee a bumper Christmas present – enough money to give up her job and focus on writing full time. Brown also steered her towards an agent, Maurice Crain. She wrote and rewrote short stories, but Crain suggested she write a novel. He liked the first draft, titled Go Set a Watchman, but advised a different title: Atticus might be better.

Lee was already at work on a second novel when the manuscript of Atticus was sent to the publishers JB Lippincott, where the editor Tay Hohoff liked it, but thought extensive revisions were needed. Lee complied and received a contract from Lippincott with an advance of several thousand dollars. She had not at that point published anything. Hohoff agreed with Lee that To Kill a Mockingbird was a better title. Disliking the near-universal tendency to pronounce her name Nelle as “Nellie”, Lee decided to publish under the name Harper Lee. When it was finally published, in July 1960, it was marketed and reviewed as a trade book for adults but went on to sell an astonishing 500,000 copies in the year after publication. . . 


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