Nelle Harper Lee: Context, Influence, Controversy Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Nelle Harper Lee: Context, Influence, Controversy

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Artwork depicting a Courthouse with a Mockingbird
My needs are simple: paper, pen, and privacy.
– Nelle Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee (28 April, 1926 – 19 February, 2016) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 for her acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel was made into a successful film in 1962 – it won three Academy Awards.

In 2007, Ms Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom because her novel, which sold millions of copies and has been required reading in US schools for decades, deals with issues of racial inequality and tolerance in a way that readers find inspiring. A Book-of-the-Month Club survey in 1991 found that To Kill a Mockingbird was regarded among its readers as second only to the Bible 'as making a difference in people's lives.'

After these landmark literary achievements, Nelle Harper Lee lived a quiet life divided equally between her hometown in southern Alabama and her adopted home of New York City. She refused all interviews and published little. That was one of the reasons the 2015 publication of her second and only other published novel created such a stir.

Another reason for the uproar was that the second novel, Go Set a Watchman, dealt with the same characters – now beloved icons in the public imagination – in a way that cast them in a much more uncomfortable light. The revelation that Go Set a Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird made things even more problematic to modern audiences. In order to place the controversy in context, it might be a good idea to review briefly the biography of Nelle Harper Lee.

Childhood Friends and What Became of Them

Nelle Harper Lee1 was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, a small town 88 miles (142km) north of Mobile on the Gulf Coast. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a prominent lawyer and member of the Alabama House of Representatives (1927-39). The population of the town in 1930 was 1,355: Nelle Harper grew up in genteel poverty (it was the Great Depression) among people who had a 'right way' of doing everything. This didn't actually sit too well, as Nelle Harper was described by her contemporaries as a 'tomboy' and 'a bit of a bully'. Luckily, she had her best friend, who lived next door.

Truman Streckfus Persons was the name of Nelle Harper's best friend2. He was a couple of years older than Nelle Harper, and lived next door with his cousins. During their childhood, the children shared an old typewriter donated by Mr Lee. It weighed about 25 pounds (11kg). They lugged it everywhere and banged out future literary careers. After they grew up and became famous Monroeville was shocked and rather proud that two famous writers came out of their little old town. For the time being, however, they were just two more rambunctious children getting into mischief in a small town. Such as the time Nelle Harper and the other kids drove Truman's bicycle-powered toy Ford Trimotor aeroplane off a roof and into a pigsty. Nobody was seriously hurt, but the plane was a write-off.

Truman and Nelle Harper remained lifelong friends. Truman supported her efforts to publicise To Kill a Mockingbird. Nelle Harper helped Truman to collect information for his last major work, In Cold Blood. Both stories – the writing of Mockingbird and the creation of In Cold Blood   – reveal something about Nelle Harper Lee, so we should tell them.

A Manuscript in the Snow

The old legends about the poets who turn out their villanelles while starving in attics came perilously close to fact in her case.
– Tay Hohoff3, Editor, in an essay for the Literary Guild

It was 1958, around Christmas time. Nelle Harper was living in a cold-water flat4 in New York City. The only reason she wasn't working full-time as an airline ticket clerk, which was a union job and didn't pay badly, was that the previous year, her wealthier friends had given her enough money to take the year off and work full-time on her novel.

She'd been working on this novel for about seven years now: at least, that's how the story went for years. But the first draft of that novel was allegedly Go Set a Watchman. And Go Set a Watchman is a very different book. The most we can assume is the first manuscript was what she started with before her publishers and editor Tay Hohoff began working with her. In all, Tay Hohoff would spend three years in close collaboration with Nelle Harper Lee on the book that would become To Kill a Mockingbird. But right now, in December 1958, Nelle Harper was at the end of her tether: tired, discouraged, and disgusted with her latest draft. So she did what many a writer has longed to do.

She opened the window and threw the whole manuscript out into the snowy air of New York City. Then she phoned Tay Hohoff, who of course made her go outside and pick up every page. She got back to work. The work paid off in 1960. Warned that a first author would be lucky to sell a couple of thousand copies, Nelle Harper was as astonished as everyone else when To Kill a Mockingbird stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 88 weeks and sold 10,000 copies a week.

To Kill a Mockingbird

For those who haven't read it: To Kill a Mockingbird is a fictional memoir that represents a narrative by a woman called Jean Louise Finch. The memoir describes the childhood of Jean Louise (nicknamed Scout) in a small Alabama town called Maycomb during the Great Depression. The main plots involve Scout and her brother making friends with a neighbourhood recluse named Boo Radley, and the children's father's courtroom defence of an unjustly-accused African American man.

As can be imagined, a number of incidents and details in To Kill a Mockingbird are based on Nelle Harper Lee's personal experiences growing up. There was a reclusive neighbour who became a family friend. Amasa Lee did once represent two Black defendants – far less dramatically and heroically than the character Atticus Finch did in the novel. But part of the appeal of To Kill a Mockingbird has always been the authenticity of its setting. Its other major selling point has been the fact that the story represents an idealised portrait of civil courage in the face of racial injustice. It was the significance of the novel to the civil rights movement of the 1960s that led Nelle Harper Lee to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W Bush.

To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced the character of our country for the better. It's been a gift to the entire world. As a model of good writing and humane sensibility, this book will be read and studied forever. And so all of us are filled with admiration for a great American and a lovely lady named Harper Lee.
– George W Bush, 5 November, 2007, from the Congressional Record

Road Trip to Kansas

All of this fame and fortune still lay in the future when Nelle Harper agreed to accompany her friend Truman on a train journey in 1959. She was waiting for her novel to come out, and Truman had spotted a brief notice in the newspaper that intrigued him. It told of a quadruple homicide in a small town in Kansas. Truman wanted to write a series of articles for The New Yorker, a prestigious (and opinion-setting) magazine. At first, Truman wasn't interested in the crime itself: he didn't care whether the police caught the killers or not. He wanted to write about the reactions of the people in a small town to the trauma of violent crime in their midst. He also wanted to experiment with a new form of non-fiction writing, one that combined the immediacy of a novel with the factual nature of news. At least, that was the theory: opinions differ as to how factual the end product was.

It was a good thing Truman brought Nelle Harper along. The town of Holcomb, Kansas, only had 270 people in it, and all of them thought Truman Capote was too weird to be believed. They refused to talk to him.

Those people had never seen anything like Truman – he was like someone coming off the moon.
– Nelle Harper Lee

This was not surprising. Truman Capote had reinvented himself as a world traveller and urban sophisticate who hobnobbed with movie stars and dined with New York society's A-list. Kansas wasn't impressed, and certainly wasn't going to tell him its secrets. Nelle Harper, however, appeared polite, kindly, and down-to-earth. The breakthrough came when the locals found out the two friends were alone in a hotel over Christmas. Their sense of hospitality overcame their shyness, and the visitors were invited to the lead detective's home for Christmas Day. There the locals discovered that Truman had a wealth of amusing stories about movie stars he'd met and worked with. The invitations started pouring in.

Nelle Harper helped Truman collect the stories and anecdotes that he needed about the Clutter family murders. Then the murderers themselves were apprehended: Truman's project took on a new goal. With Truman staying behind to get the criminals' side of the story – and, eventually, write the book In Cold Blood   – Nelle Harper went back to New York to deal with her own rising fame.

Five Decades or So Later...

Elsewhere, Uncle Jack explains to Jean Louise the metaphysics of the Civil War...
– Adam Gopnik, reviewing Go Set a Watchman for the New Yorker in 2015

Truman Capote published In Cold Blood in 1966. It failed to win the Pulitzer Prize, which chagrined the competitive Truman. Getting personally involved with the murderers had been emotionally wrenching, as well. He never wrote another book-length work, and died of liver disease and complications of alcohol and drug abuse in 1984.

Nelle Harper Lee remained a very 'private' individual, meaning that she didn't give interviews or share more of her life than she had in her novel. She divided her time between New York City and Monroeville, until advancing age caused her to settle in Monroeville to help her older sister Alice – who continued to practise law up to the age of 100. Eventually, Nelle Harper moved into an assisted living facility, where the staff carefully guarded her from unwanted visitors.

In August 2014, Alice Lee died at the age of 103. In July 2015, Nelle Harper Lee's second book was published, and it was called Go Set a Watchman. The publishing company (HarperCollins5) billed it as a 'sequel' to To Kill a Mockingbird, but it soon became clear that this was an inaccurate description of the book. Go Set a Watchman was the original novel written by Nelle Harper Lee in the 1950s – the one laid aside for the long collaboration with Tay Hohoff that produced To Kill a Mockingbird. This older manuscript had lain in a safe-deposit box for decades, and its content caused surprise and consternation.

Accusations were made (and refuted) that Nelle Harper's literary agent had taken advantage of the confusion of an elderly woman to induce her to publish this rough draft of a novel as a money-making effort. Critics commented unfavourably on the quality of 'Watchman' as inferior to 'Mockingbird' in style. It definitely hadn't gone through the extensive editing process of the earlier work.

The greatest shock for fans of To Kill a Mockingbird was the way in which Go Set a Watchman dealt with what were by now beloved characters, particularly Atticus Finch. In 'Mockingbird', Finch is a symbol of liberal Southern virtue. He's an honest man who risks his livelihood and reputation to do what he sees as right. In 'Watchman', a grown-up Jean Louise returns home from New York to find out that her father is associating with white supremacists in order to prevent (or at least delay) integration in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education, which mandated integration of schools.

In 'Watchman', Jean Louise confronts her own image of her father as an ethical hero. She discovers his willingness to compromise in order to preserve what he regards as a 'way of life'. She finds his faith in paternalism and 'order', coupled with the belief that African Americans aren't 'ready' for full participation in democracy, disturbing. Even more disturbing to the reader is the sense that Jean Louise may believe some of these things herself. The novel is far less virtuous, and far less emotionally satisfying than To Kill a Mockingbird. It avoids easy answers – which may be a point in its favour, even though it is a far less polished work than the one everyone has praised for so long.

How much the publication of Go Set a Watchman will affect the way To Kill a Mockingbird is read and taught in the future is yet to be determined. Will literary historians and educators sweep it aside, or will they include this 'sequel' in a more balanced assessment of changing attitudes toward the discussion of racism issues in the United States?

For Further Study

All I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.
– Nelle Harper Lee, 1964 radio interview with Roy Newquist, WXQR

Both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are available for sale and in libraries. Go read them. The same holds for In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

For a view of the life of Nelle Harper Lee from the perspective of friends, classmates and neighbours, see Kerry Madden, Harper Lee, 2009, Viking Press. This biography, aimed at a younger audience, provides background information on the historical setting of many major events in the author's life.

An analysis of the history of white Southern attitudes toward racism can be found in Adam Gopnik's review of Go Set a Watchman, New Yorker, July 15, 2015. It is well worth reading for its insights into what Gopnik astutely calls '...the clichéd rationales that liberal Southerners used for years to justify a social order that they knew to be unjust.'

Two 21st-Century films have been made that dramatise the fact-finding mission of Truman and Nelle Harper in Kansas in 1959-60. The first is Bennett Miller's 2005 film Capote. The second is the 2006 film by Douglas McGrath called Infamous. Of the two, Infamous offers a more thorough examination of the writing of In Cold Blood in the context of the New York literary 'scene'.

The 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck, can be rented anywhere on streaming services.

A rare radio interview from 1964 can be heard here. It's self-congratulatory about the virtues of small-town life in the Deep South, and perpetuates a few myths about the 'cultural heritage' of the region.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

1Biographers often point out that 'Nelle' is 'Ellen' (her grandmother's name) spelled backward. The author used the name 'Harper Lee' as a writer because it irritated her when people pronounced her first name 'Nellie'. Biographers also like to point out that in Monroeville, Alabama, her name is pronounced 'Nail Hah-puh', and that the double first name is commonly used. This is a regional custom.2His name was later changed by his new stepfather, José García Capote, which is why we don't read novels by Truman Streckfus Persons, but by Truman Capote.3Therese von Hohoff (1898-1974) was an editor for JB Lippincott and Co., and author in her own right.4A cold-water flat was an apartment that only had cold running water. It was a sign of poverty in the 1950s.5No relation.

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