Harper Lee was one of the most famous writers of her time–known for To Kill a Mockingbird, a controversial novel about race relations in America. She also published Go Set a Watchman near the end of her life.

Lee received the Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird.

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Where was Harper Lee born?

She was born in Monroeville, Alabama. Her father was by turns an editor, lawyer and even Senator. Lee modeled Atticus Finch after her father.

How did Harper Lee pursue a career as a writer?

  • 1944 to 1945: Lee attended Huntingdon College (a private women’s college) in Montgomery, Alabama.
  • 1945: Lee studied law at the University of Alabama (she discontinued her law studies 6 months before receiving her degree). She once said that writer fool themselves “when they study to be writers. “They are training themselves, in colleges, to be writers. Well, my dear young people, writing is something you’ll never learn in any university or at any school. It’s something that is within you, and if it isn’t there, nothing can put it there.”
  • 1949: She moved to New York, and began pursuing her career as a writer.
  • 1956: She recalled receiving an envelop on a tree, address to her, which state: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”
  • 1960: Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • 1964: In an interview with Roy Newquist, Counterpoints, Lee said: “You see, more than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer.” She said, “All I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”
  • 2015: Lee published Go Set a Watchman.

Harper Lee may have wanted to be the Austen of South Alabama, but who she became was something so much different. Her writing career is punctuated by the release of two novels — one at the beginning of her career and one at the end. And, between the two events (and for all literary history to come), she has inspired a maelstrom of controversy that will never fully dissipate.

To be Jane Austen — that’s what she wanted. But, she had already become HARPER LEE. Like Austen, she was reclusive. But, unlike Austen, her fame was instantaneous and has been continuous. To Kill a Mockingbird sold 1.1 million copies when it was first published. And, that bestseller status has continued to hold — with more than 40 million copies sold, in 40 languages.

We can only wonder what Virginia Woolf would have written about Harper Lee and her legacy, but there’s no doubt that Lee has achieved a place alongside the likes of Jane Austen, Aphra Behn, and Virginia Woolf herself. We’re still in turmoil as we attempt to come to grips with Lee’s death and her legacy, but perhaps too we can imagine that Lee may turn out to be Anonymous (some other illusory threads of her life may still be revealed).

So, yes…. I want to be a Jane Austen. I also want to be a Harper Lee. We should all hope to achieve that kind of wonderful writerly accomplishment, but also just the ability to offer some piece of ourselves to the world. More than that, we should hope to understand even a small piece of the lessons she imbued into her fiction.

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