Happy Birthday Harper Lee!

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The reclusive author of “To Kill A Mockingbird” would be 93 years old today.  Business Optimizer remembers an American great.

Nelle Harper Lee was an American novelist.  Born on April 28, 1926, she is best known for her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” which was published in 1960.

Pulitzer Prize Winner & Public Favourite

To Kill a Mockingbird was quickly successful.  A year after the novel was published, half a million copies had been sold and it had been translated into 10 languages.

The speed of its success came as a shock to Lee.  She is quoted as saying, “I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird.  I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.  Public encouragement.  I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and remains a stalwart of high school reading lists.  In 2018, votes from the US public ensured it topped a six-month-long poll by broadcaster PBS to find the best “Great American Read” .

A Tale of Injustice in the Era of the Great Depression

To Kill A Mockingbird recounts a legal case: the defence, by lawyer Atticus Finch, of an African-American man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman.  The story is told through the eyes of Finch’s young daughter Scout.

Set in America’s deep south of the 1930s, the novel is said to be deeply influenced by the experience of Lee’s attorney father, who was involved in the unsuccessful landmark 1931 trial of the “Scottsboro Boys”.

In fact, Lee’s novel is said to draw on several autobiographical details; the character of Scout’s friend Dill was based on her near neighbour and fellow writer Truman Capote .  Capote also indicated that the character of Boo Radley in the novel was also based on Lee’s real life.  Capote said, “He was a real man, and he lived just down the road from us.”

To Kill A Mockingbird

When Lee first submitted it to publishers in 1957, the novel was written from the perspective of the attorney.  Lee revised the draft repeatedly and, in subsequent drafts, the story shifts to be told through the eyes of a child.

This choice gave the novel an immediacy and innocence that resonates strongly with the reader as we experience the case and its repercussions through Scout’s eyes and watch as Scout’s eyes open to the injustice in the world around her.

Yet the novel was not without controversy.  When Virginia’s Hanover County School Board removed all copies in 1966 on the grounds that it was “immoral”, Lee wrote to the editor of The Richmond News Leader : “Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.”

A Literary Legacy

There is no doubt that Lee’s work is a classic of modern American literature.  Today, it has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

Lee shunned public life after the success of her first novel  and it isn’t clear whether she went on to write further novels.  A second book was published under her name in 2015, but this also came with controversy .  “Go Set a Watchman” was the bestselling book of 2015 in the USA.  Billed as Lee’s second novel, it was actually based on the original draft of To Kill A Mockingbird.  This revelation didn’t dint sales; Go Set a Watchman sold more than 1.6 million hardcover copies.

Lee died on February 19, 2016.