Nelle Harper Lee’s contribution to literature has been limited in output. Yet with her one novel, Lee has accomplished more than many prolific writers have. To Kill a Mockingbird contains an astute and touching portrait of life in a small southern town during the 1930’s. For this novel Lee received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1961. In 1962 the novel was made into an Academy Award-winning film, with a screenplay by Horton Foote. In the same year the novel received Best Sellers’ Paperback of the Year award.
Lee was born in a small Alabama town to Frances Finch and Amasa Coleman Lee. Her father, who had a law practice in Monroeville, provided the role model for Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, while her mother provided the main characters’ surname of Finch. Lee’s family is related to the southern Civil War general Robert E. Lee.
Lee’s formal education included the public schools of Monroeville and a year at Huntington College. In 1945 she attended the University of Alabama; then she spent a year abroad at the University of Oxford. After her return to the United States, Lee continued at the University of Alabama, though she left in 1950, only six months short of obtaining a law degree. Upon leaving Alabama, Lee went to New York City, where she worked as an airlines reservation clerk. Lee had started writing at the age of seven, but it was only during her stint in New York City that she finally wrote full-time in the hope of publication. The manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird was submitted to a publishing house in 1957, but it was only after two and a half years of rewriting that it was published.
One critic has called To Kill a Mockingbird a “level-headed plea for interracial understanding.” The novel’s core story deals with the plight of a black man who is wrongly accused of the rape of a white woman. He is innocent of the crime, but he is convicted by a racist jury and is sent to prison, where he is killed in an escape attempt. The story of this injustice is told through the voice of a ten-year-old girl, Scout, whose lawyer father combats the prevailing racial prejudice of the time to defend the innocent man.
A subplot of the novel deals with Boo Radley, a man who has been ostracized by the townspeople and by his own family. False rumors of his evil deeds and his reclusive ways have made the town’s children fear him. Scout and her brother, Jem, learn in the course of the novel that Boo is a hero, not a villain.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an initiation novel, one in which the child narrator learns important lessons about the good and bad sides of human nature and society. From her heroic father, she learns positive ethical principles, and from her relatives and the townspeople she learns about the harm done by bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and a suffocating social caste system. One reason for the novel’s enormous popular success was that it was published at a time when the nation was turning its attention to the Civil Rights movement and facing issues of integration and segregation head-on.
Although Lee has not written a successor to To Kill a Mockingbird, she has published several nonfiction articles in national magazines since its publication. It is for her novel, however, that she remains best known.