Harper Lee, an award winning novelist, passed away at age 89. Many of us are familiar with her novel To Kill a Mockingbird which acts as a cornerstone of high school English classes everywhere. Published in 1960, it continues to be a bestseller to this day.
Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926 and was the youngest of four siblings. Her mother worked as a homemaker while her father was a newspaper editor who eventually became a lawyer. In 1944, Lee graduated high school and would go on to attend Huntingdon College and the University of Alabama where she studied law and wrote for the university newspaper. During this time period, these accomplishments were no small feat for any woman.
Lee’s writing was greatly inspired by her childhood and through the first hand experiences of growing up in the south. Her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is told from the perspective of a young girl named Scout who lives in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. In this coming-of- age novel, we see Scout’s account of her life, her family, and the influential events of her childhood. Lee beautifully describes the many colorful characters that make up the town, as well as the shenanigans that Scout and her brother get up to. The most noteworthy event of Scout’s childhood is when her father, a lawyer named Atticus, defends a black man in court. This stuns the segregated town and amazes Scout, who holds a great amount of admiration for her father. Scout watches as Atticus sticks to a strong moral code and his duty to uphold the law, even when he begins to face a backlash from the town. The book promotes ideas of doing the right thing even in the face of adversity. It also criticizes race and class issues that existed within the south, as well as the attitudes that allowed this injustice to happen.
While Lee never expected her first novel to sell, it quickly gained popularity and is still in print today. To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate bestseller and has received an incredible amount of recognition and praise throughout the years. It won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and, more recently, was voted “Best Novel of the Century” by the Library Journal. President Barack Obama also presented Lee with the National Medal of Arts in 2010 for her extensive contributions to the arts.
Lee was as bold and brave in person as she was on the page. She was incredibly witty and charming, and while it is important to remember her work, we must also remember her character. It is difficult to find words to describe someone as influential and inspiring as Harper Lee, but one can certainly capture an image of her personality when looking at her past actions. One example can be seen in 1966, when a school board in Richmond, Virginia attempted to ban To Kill a Mockingbird as they labeled it as “immoral literature”. In response to this, Lee wrote them a letter saying that their accusations made her “wonder if any of [the board] members can read.” Enclosed in the letter was a sum of money, that Lee sent in the hopes that it would “be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”
Unafraid to speak her mind, Harper Lee’s writing is truly inspiring to all who come across it. It is easy to see how such a story could gain such widespread praise, as there are few people who haven’t been moved by her characters and their struggles. While we are heartbroken to say goodbye to her, her work and ideas will continue to be cherished and live on.