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(Nelle) Harper Lee (1926-)


American writer, famous for her race relations novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. The book became an international bestseller and was adapted into screen in 1962. Lee was 34 when the work was published, and it has remained her only novel.

"Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama. Her father was a former newspaper editor and proprietor, who had served as a state senator and practiced as a lawyer in Monroeville. Lee studied law at the University of Alabama from 1945 to 1949, and spent a year as an exchange student in Oxford University, Wellington Square. Six months before finishing her studies, she went to New York to pursue a literary career. During the 1950s, she worked as an airline reservation clerk with Eastern Air Lines and British Overseas Airways. In 1959 Lee accompanied Truman Capote to Holcombe, Kansas, as a research assistant for Capote's classic 'non-fiction' novel In Cold Blood (1966).

To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee's first novel. The book is set in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s. Atticus Finch, a lawyer and a father, defends a black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a poor white girl, Mayella Ewell. The setting and several of the characters are drawn from life – Finch was the maiden name of Lee's mother, and the character of Dill was drawn from Capote, Lee's childhood friend. The trial itself has parallels to the infamous "Scottboro Trial," in which the charge was rape. In both, too, the defendants were African-American men and the accusers white women.

"But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States of the humblest J.P. court in the land, or this honorable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal." (Finch defending Tom Robinson)

The narrator is Finch's daughter, nicknamed Scout, an immensely intelligent and observant child. She starts the story when she is six and relates many of her experiences, usual interests of a child, and events which break the sheltered world of childhood. Her mother is dead and she tries to keep pace with her older brother Jem. He breaks his arm so badly that it heals shorter than the other. One day the children meet Dill, their new seven-year-old friend. They become interested in Boo Radley, a recluse man in his thirties. However, he is not the frightening person as they first had imagined. During the humorous and sad events Scout and Jem learn a lesson in good and evil, and compassion and justice. As Scout's narrative goes on, the reader realizes that she will never kill a mockingbird or become a racist. Scout tells her story in her own language, which is obviously that of a child, but she also analyzes people and their actions from the viewpoint of an already grown-up, mature person.

The first plot tells the story of Boo Radley, who is generally considered deranged, and the second concerns Tom Robinson. A jury of twelve white men believe two whites and refuse to look past the color of man's skin. They convict Robinson of a crime, rape, he did not commit. Atticus, assigned to defend Tom, loses in court. Tom tries to escape and is shot dead. Bob Ewell, Mayella's father, is obviously guilty of beating her for making sexual advances toward Tom. Bob attacks Jem and Scout because Atticus has exposed his daughter and him as liars. The children are saved by Boo Radley. Bob Ewell is found dead with a knife in his side. Atticus and Calpurnia, the black cook, slowly take the position of the moral centre of the book. They are portrayed as pillars of society who do not share society's prejudices. The story emphasizes that the children are born with an instinct for justice and absorb prejudices in the socialization process. Tom is a scapegoat of society's prejudice and violence. "Mr. Finch, there's just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to 'em. Even then, they ain't worth the bullet it takes to shoot 'em. Ewell 'as one of 'em."

Although her first novel gained a huge success, Lee did not continue her literary career, although she worked for years on a second novel and a book of nonfiction. She returned from New York to Monroeville, where she has lived with her sister Alice, avoiding interviews. In 2007, Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by George Bush.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into several languages. An illustrated English edition appeared in Moscow in 1977 for propaganda reasons. In the foreword Nadiya Matuzova, Dr.Philol., wrongly stated that "Harper Lee did not live to see her fiftieth birthday," but added rightly: "But her only, remarkable novel which continued the best traditions of the American authors who wrote about America's South – Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and many others – will forever belong in the treasure of progressive American literature."

For further reading: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Joyce Milton, Tessa Krailing (paperback 1984); To Kill a Mockingbird Notes, ed. Eva Fitzwater ( 1984); Understanding To Kill a Mockingbird by Claudia Durst Johnson and Harper Lee (1994); You Can Go Home Again by Rebecca Lutterell Bailey (1993); Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, ed. Harold Bloom (1995); To Kill a Mockingbird: Threatening Boundaries by Claudia Durst Johnson (1995); Mockingbird. A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields (2006) - See also other famous writers who have published only one novel during their lifetime: Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man, 1952), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind, 1936) - About the film: For Harper Lee, the casting was precisely right - the studio had turned down Rock Hudson, who had discovered Lee's novel, and bought the rights for Gregory Peck. Before beginning of his work, Peck went to Alabama and met the real Atticus Finch, Lee's father Amasa Lee. In gratitude for his performance, Lee presented him with her father's own watch. Dill Harris, played by nine-year-old John Megna, was a character based on Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote. The film appeared at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, and was an immediate popular success. - From Retakes: Behind the Scenes of 500 Classic Movies by John Eastman (1989) and Novels Into Films by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh (1999) - All reviews were not positive: "To Kill a Mockingbird relates the Cult of Childhood to the Negro Problem with disastrous results. Before the intellectual confusion of the project is considered, it should be noted that this is not much of a movie even by purely formal standards." (Andrew Sarris, Village Voice, March 7, 1963)

Selected works:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird, 1961 (Pulitzer Prize in 1961)
    - Kuin surmaisi satakielen (suom. Maija Westerlund, 1961)
    Film 1962, dir. by Robert Mulligan, written by Horton Foote. Gregory Peck won finally Best Actor Oscar for his compassionate perfoarmance. The book was adapted into a play by Christopher Sergel and produced in England in 1987.

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