Lee, Harper

Introductory Notes

Harper Lee’s cousin, Richard Williams, has asked the reclusive author when she’s going to come out with another book. “And she said, ‘Richard, when you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go’” (see reference by Pressley below).

For Harper Lee, “the top” is her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961 and was made into an Academy Award–winning film, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, in 1962. Except for a couple of short magazine pieces, this single novel constitutes her entire literary output.

Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1926. After a year (1944-1945) at Huntington College in Montgomery, she went to the University of Alabama to study law. She remained at Alabama, including a year as an exchange student at Oxford University, from 1945 to 1949. She left the university six months before completing her law degree to go to New York City to become a writer.

In New York she began to write while working as an airline reservation clerk. At the urging of a literary agent, she concentrated on expanding one of her short stories into a novel. In 1957 she took her manuscript to the publishing company Lippincott, where editors saw promise in her work and encouraged her to continue to revise it. The manuscript eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960.

Since the early 1960s Harper Lee has declined to give interviews and has avoided publicity. She was asked to write an introduction for the 35th-anniversary edition of Mockingbird but declined. In 1991 she made a rare public appearance to accept an honorary degree from the University of Alabama. She now divides her time between Monroeville and New York.

There are many autobiographical elements in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is based on Lee’s own father, Amasa, a lawyer, and the narrator Scout is apparently modeled after Lee herself as a child. The fictional town of Maycomb re-creates the author’s hometown of Monroeville. Pressley says that the town’s old courthouse now draws 20,000 visitors a year and that “the old town square she explored barefoot and in overalls still stands, with the red-brick courthouse with the clock chimes and the hardware stores.”

Johnson (below, p. 13) says  that a recent study of best-sellers found that, between 1895 and 1975, To Kill a Mockingbird was the seventh best-selling book in the United States, and the third best-selling novel. And a 1991 “Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits” conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book found that “among the books mentioned by its 5,000 respondents, Harper Lee’sTKM was second only to the Bible in being ‘most often cited as making a difference’ in people’s lives” (Johnson, p. 14). The novel has become a staple of junior high and high school English classes.

I think the reason To Kill a Mockingbird is so popular in literature classes is that, although complex, it’s not at all subtle. Harper Lee’s text provides splendid passages for teaching about literary techniques like imagery, irony, and symbolism. For example, when Atticus Finch says that Tom Robinson’s case is “as simple as black and white” (203), we know exactly what he means. The story also appeals to students because it’s a story of growing up for both Jem and, to a lesser extent, Scout. 

Study Notes


Bruell, Edwin. “Keen Scalpel on Racial Ills.” English Journal 53 (Dec. 1964): 656-61.

Collins, Tom. “PEOPLE.” Newsday 27 April 1993: 8.

Johnson, Claudia. “The Secret Courts of Men’s Hearts: Code and Law in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” Studies in American Fiction 19 (1991): 129-39.

Johnson, Claudia Durst. To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries. New York: Twayne, 1994.

May, Jill. “In Defense of To Kill a Mockingbird.” Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints. Ed . Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, John M. Kean. Scarecrow, 1993. 476-84.

Pressley, Sue Anne. “Quiet Author, Home Town Attract ‘Groupies,’ Press; To Live with ‘Mockingbird.’” Washington Post10 June 1999: A3.

Schuster, Edgar J. “Discovering Theme and Structure in the Novel.” English Journal (Oct. 1963): 506-11.

Shackelford, Dean. “The Female Voice in To Kill a Mockingbird: Narrative Strategies in Film and Novel.” Mississippi Quarterly L (1996-97): 101-13.


To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee: A Review by Phoebe Adams http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/classrev/mocking.htm

To Kill a Mockingbird: The Student Survival Guide


Works by Harper Lee


Periodical Publications

  • “Love—In Other Words.” Vogue 15 April 1961: 64-5.

  • “Christmas to Me.” McCalls Dec. 1961: 63.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

All material on these pages is © as indicated by Mary Daniels Brown