Monroeville, Alabama, was a sleepy backwater town. It experienced a brief prosperity when the railroad came through in the early part of the twentieth century, then settled back into old slumber when the Vanity Fair factory went out of business. It resembles dozens of small towns in the South, and yet is remarkable as the birthplace of Nelle Harper Lee and as the inspiration for Maycomb, the setting of the “best novel of the twentieth century”(Voted by the Library Journal, To Kill a Mockingbird the best novel of the twentieth century [http://www.shmoop.com/harper-lee/timeline]), To Kill a Mockingbird. Without a doubt, the confluence of place and people couldn’t have produced a more fertile seedbed for the genesis of this beloved American novel.
Nelle Harper Lee was born on April, 28, 1926. Her father, Amassa Coleman (A.C.) Lee, was the son of a Civil War veteran and the product of a disciplined Methodist upbringing, which instilled in him that a life worth living included devotion to helping others. His life embraced many careers including country school teacher, bookkeeper, lawyer, and newspaper editor. He was a man of character and good judgment, and the inspiration for the main character, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Nelle’s mother, Frances Cunningham Finch was born into a prosperous family. She was intellectually brilliant, a gifted pianist, and attended one of the finest private schools for girls in the South. At age nineteen, Frances married A.C. Lee, who was thirty. They had four children, Alice, Frances Louise, Edwin, and the youngest, Nelle Harper. Frances also suffered from a “nervous disorder,” most likely undiagnosed manic depression. By the time Nelle was born, Frances’s mental illness rendered her emotionally inaccessible to Nelle. A.C. was the most present parent in Nelle’s life and she adored him. He spoke to children as adults and listened to them with the same respect and attention.
Nelle didn’t fit the Southern standard of what a well-bred little girl should be. She was an unashamed tomboy throughout her life. When she was five-years-old she befriended Truman Parsons, the son of a Southern beauty and a ne’r-do-well father. He was small for his age, spoiled, wimpy, and would fly into raging tantrums. Although Truman was older than Nelle, she was bigger and tougher than he, and they became inseparable friends. Nelle was willing and able to defend him from playground bullies. They shared a love for reading, and a keen intellect and imagination which made them somewhat different from other children their age. They also shared a childhood hurt of parental abandonment; Truman’s parents leaving him in the care of his relations; and Nelle’s mother, battling her demons with mental illness.
A.C. Lee observed the children’s days spent in the tree house reading books or making up their own stories and plots. He presented them with a most unusual gift for most children, but a treasure to Nelle and Truman, an Underwood typewriter, which they lugged around as their constant companion. The people and places of Monroeville provided ample story material for two bright, imaginative children. In the mid ’30s, Truman’s mother sent for him to join her and her new husband in New York City, but the friendship continued through the years. When he began his writing career, he changed his name to Truman Capote. Nelle was the person he invited to be his research assistant for his landmark book of nonfiction, In Cold Blood.
After high school, Nelle chose Huntington Women’s College to continue her education. After her freshman year, she transferred to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa where she became the editor for the Rammer Jammer, a college publication with a satirical slant that encouraged creative expression. Nelle, who was unconcerned with fashion, never wore make-up, smoked a pipe, and could cuss in an unladylike fashion, was considered by some to be an eccentric and reclusive. In fact, she was just disinterested in the social whirl that occupied the minds of many students her age. Those who took the time to know her described her as comfortable in her own skin and had a quick humor. She didn’t need the approval of others and didn’t seek it out. The semester before graduation, she dropped out and moved to New York City, where her friend Truman was making a name for himself as a writer.
To support herself she worked in a bookstore and then as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and later at British Overseas Air Corporation. Keeping a roof over her head and food on the table, however, was not facilitating her writing career. Truman introduced her to a couple in his circle of theater friends, Michael Martin Brown and his wife Joy, who was a fellow Southerner. They took an immediate liking to each other and became good friends. Nelle opened up to them and confided her dreams of becoming a writer. In 1956, Nelle was unable to get enough time off work to travel to Monroeville for the Christmas holiday, and was invited to join the Browns. It was a Christmas that changed her life. The Browns presented her with proposition that they would pay her living expenses for a year so she could quit her job and write full time.
Soon afterward, she was invited to discuss her writing with the editors of J.P. Lippincott and Company. They liked her writing; it was obvious she was no amateur. But, her coming of age story about three children in the town of Maycomb was just a series of events without a strong central plot to hold it together. It would need a lot of work before it would be ready for publication. Tay Hohoff, one of the Lippincott editors, became her mentor, and guided her through a year of writing anguish, molding Nelle’s novel into the literary masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The book was published in July 1960. Within a few weeks it hit the bestseller lists of the both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. In May of 1961, Nelle’s first novel had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
To Nelle, who was never interested in fame and was more comfortable in solitude or with a small group of intimate friends, the instant notoriety her novel created was overwhelming. Throughout her life, she was almost self-deprecating about her accomplishment and avoided, whenever possible, interviews and public appearances.
In 1961 Nelle’s agents sold the movie rights to the Hollywood producers and director, Alan Pakula and Bob Mulligan. Nelle wanted to have a say in who would play the lead role of Atticus Finch and wrote a personal letter to Spencer Tracy inviting him to consider the role. He was obligated to another movie at the time. It was rumored that Bing Crosby had expressed interest in the role, and Rock Hudson was also considered by the producers. In the end, Gregory Peck was selected. Peck traveled to Monroeville to meet Nelle and A.C. Lee. He spent considerable time with A.C. wanting to get to know the essence of the man that inspired the character Atticus Finch. Initially, Nelle had reservations about Peck pulling off the role, but later said the first time he stepped on the sound stage, he became Atticus and her doubts evaporated.
Shortly after filming began for the movie, Nelle was called home and her beloved father died on April 15, 1962. She was grateful that he had lived long enough to see the success of her book and it’s homage to him.
With the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Nelle’s publisher, friends, and fans were waiting anxiously for her next novel. A second novel, however, was never completed, and To Kill a Mockingbird stands on it’s own as Harper Lee’s single most important work. Nelle Harper Lee was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters April 2007. Later that same year, President George W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Honor with the words of this press release, “At a critical moment in our history, her beautiful book, To Kill a Mockingbird, helped focus the nation on the turbulent struggle for equality” (Charles J. Shields, I Am Scout, the Biography of Harper Lee, [New York: Henry Holt, 2008]).
Nelle Harper Lee still lives simply in Monroeville, Alabama.