Today’s Birthday, April 28: American novelist Harper Lee (1926-2016)
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird still resonates with readers almost six decades on from its release.
The 1961 coming-of-age novel about racism and injustice was voted America’s best-loved novel in PBS’ The Great American Read poll in 2018.
With more than four million votes cast, To Kill a Mockingbird beat out Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings.
Born in Alabama in 1926, Harper Lee was the youngest of five children.
She had an interest in English literature at school but after graduating studied law at the University of Alabama in 1944.
She didn’t complete her law degree and moved to New York City where she worked as an airline ticket agent, writing in her spare time.
In 1956, Lee’s friend, Broadway composer Michael Martin Brown, offered to support her for a year so she could concentrate on her writing.
She quit her job and four years later her literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird was published.
Set in America’s south in the 1930s, it focuses on father and lawyer Atticus Finch who defends an African-American man falsely accused of assaulting a white woman.
The slender novel won a Pulitzer Prize, sold more than 40 million copies worldwide and remains a fixture on school reading lists.
Following her success, Lee worked for her childhood friend Truman Capote and helped to interview residents and investigators for a New Yorker article he was writing about a family murder in Kansas.
Capote’s piece turned into his 1966 non-fiction book, In Cold Blood, which was dedicated to Lee for her assistance on the project.
Since her book was published, Lee has remained out of the public eye and has granted very few interviews, with the exception of accepting honours from presidents and universities.
To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962 and, in a rare public comment, the reclusive author said the screenplay was one of the best adaptations she had ever seen.
Her long-awaited second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was published in 2015. It was initially promoted as a sequel to her only other published novel, but is now accepted as being a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.