Boo: The Hidden Harper Lee

by Lauren Haynes

Childhood

On July 11, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was published. It was a day that would change forever the life of Harper Lee as well as countless admiring readers. Yet Lee has never written another novel since and has become somewhat cynical about the fame that her masterpiece brought her.

Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28, 1926. Her Father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was the son of a civil war veteran who ran a “staunch Methodist home.” Lee’s mother, Frances Finch Lee, was the daughter of a successful farmer in Finchburg, Alabama. She and A.C. Lee married when he was 19 years old. They moved to Monroeville where A.C. worked as a lawyer and Frances was a stay-at-home mother of three.

Nelle was named after her maternal grandmother, Ellen Finch, spelled backwards. As a child, she met Truman Streckfus Persons, who later changed his name to Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Tomboy Nelle stuck up for Truman when he was a bookish child living with his aunt in Monroeville, and he became the inspiration for the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird. The two were close friends and stayed that way for the majority of Capote’s life.

The Novel

After high school, Nelle attended the all-girl Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama where she studied English literature. She then transferred to the University of Alabama where she meant to follow her BA with a Law degree. Returning home to Monroeville, Lee found that she wasn’t cut out for the family law business, and dropped her legal studies  to pursue a career in writing. Much to her father’s disappointment, she moved to New York, where she reunited with Capote. To make ends meet, Lee worked as an airline ticketer and wrote in her spare time. She befriended fellow Alabamians Joy and Michael Brown who welcomed her into their home as though she were a member of the family. On Christmas of 1956, the Browns gave Lee the present that would change lives forever.  They gave her a year’s monetary support so that she could quit her job and devote herself completely to writing.

During that year, Harper Lee wrote the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Eventually, she found Tay Hohoff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott & Co., who helped her over two years of revisions and rewrites. When at last it was published, To Kill a Mockingbird became an immediate success and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

Although the Lee family is very private, it has publicly denied the pervasive view that the novel is autobiographical. And yet it features clear and strong resemblances to Lee’s childhood. Capote confirmed that Dill was modeled on his young self, and Scout bears strong resemblance to the young Lee. Atticus Finch is likewise based on A.C.’s persona; as Lee explained in an interview, “Atticus’s view of life” was that of her father, who “believed that people are basically good, capable of improving, and as eager as the next person for a better future.” She also confessed that she hoped the novel would make her father proud of her choice to become a writer. Since Atticus Finch has become one of the most respected literary characters of the 20th century, To Kill A Mockingbird is widely recognized as an extraordinary homage of a daughter to a father.

There are other grains of truth in the novel’s fiction. Most conspicuously, the trial at the center of To Kill A Mockingbird was inspired by the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, in which nine young black men were accused of raping two white girls, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. The event is now recognized as one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice of the Jim Crow era.

Life after Mockingbird

After the success of her first novel, Lee tried writing others, but the pressure of creating another blockbuster was too much for her to bear.  Lee gave her last interview in 1964 and then moved back to Monroeville to live with her sister Alice. Since then, she has refused interviews, convinced that journalists were interested only in her personal life and the ways it might be shaped to fit the story they wished to write.

In subsequent years, Lee has kept herself secluded from the fame that her first novel brought her. It is tempting to read the reasons for her retreat from celebrity in the lines she writes about Boo: “Taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service and dragging him and his shy ways into the limelight, it’s a sin.” As Lee has said, “[I]f you know Boo, you know why I’m not doing an interview”.

Perhaps we should let the work speak for itself. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee has shown millions of young people and adults that we can know and like each other irrespective of the differences that mark us. She has shown that it’s OK not to share the outlook of the majority and that looking at situations with a childlike innocence is sometimes the best way to see good and bad, black and white, and all the gray in between.

 

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