Harper Lee passed into the ages at 89 on February 19, 2016. The iconic author of To Kill a Mockingbird, a masterpiece of literary fiction, Lee was just 34 years old when the book was released. Her story of a novice attorney defending a black man accused of raping a white girl was published in 1960, just when the US civil rights movement was gaining momentum. It touched the right chord and became hugely popular, selling more than 30 million copies. This work won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is still taught as a text in school curricula across the world.
To Kill a Mockingbird was made into an overwhelmingly successful drama film starring Gregory Peck in 1962. It won three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Peck while it was nominated for eight other awards. In 2007, George W Bush, then President of the United States of America, called the book “a gift to the entire world” while conferring on Harper Lee the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
10 things to know about Harper Lee
- Harper Lee was named Nelle Harper Lee, after her mother’s mother, Ellen Finch (Nelle is Ellen spelled backwards). Harper chose not to use the first name Nelle as she didn’t want people to misspell it as “Nellie”.
- Harper Lee was a frugal spender and shopped at Walmart and Vanity Fair outlets; she is also known to have anonymously donated a large sum of money to charities.
- Harper Lee based the character of Atticus Finch, one of the protagonists of To Kill a Mockingbird, on her father who was an attorney. This character in the movie was named the “greatest hero” of the 20th century!
- Harper Lee and Gregory Peck became great friends during the filming of To Kill a Mockingbird. Peck’s grandson, Harper Peck Voll, was even named after Lee.
- Harper Lee’s second book Go Set a Watchman was published in July 2015. Strangely, it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee was also writing a non-fiction book about a serial killer in Alabama, The Reverend, but it has not been published yet.
- The use of prevalent racial epithets in To Kill a Mockingbird has made it controversial, and at one time, the book was banned by some schools in Virginia.
- The British Museum & Archives Council voted To Kill a Mockingbird as the book to be read by everyone before they die. Surprisingly, the Bible came in second!
- Harper Lee, known for being reclusive and reticent, gave her last interview in 1964.
- After turning down an interview request with Oprah Winfrey, Harper Lee did have lunch with her at the Four Seasons hotel in New York where they instantly clicked.
- Harper Lee allowed To Kill a Mockingbird to be published as an e-book only in 2014. She once told Oprah Winfrey, “I’m still old fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries.”
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Harper Lee on books and reading
Here are three famous Harper Lee quotes on books, reading and writing that we will always remember:
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
“The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.”
“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.”