“The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.” – Harper Lee
Born in Alabama on this date in 1926, Nelle Harper Lee became one of America’s most acclaimed novelists even though she wrote just two books. But, of course, the first of those was her “classic,” To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 1960 it achieved immediate success, rocketing to the top of most bestseller lists and winning the 1961 Pulitzer Prize. That singular achievement led to her being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
Harper Lee in 1960 and in 2007
Lee also was feted for assisting Truman Capote (the model for her character Dill in Mockingbird) in his research for his 1966 masterpiece In Cold Blood. Between them, Lee and Capote created a new kind of journalistic reporting, obtaining “notes” from a primary source without actually writing them down. Both were able to remember things in minute detail, and they would spend hours after interviewing sessions re-creating those interviews. Their skill with the technique led to sources to “opening up” in ways they might otherwise have not wanted to do.
Lee lived her last 50 years as a recluse. Until her death in 2016, she granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances. And with the exception of a few short essays, she published nothing further until 2015 when her so-called “prequel” to Mockingbird – Go Set A Watchman – came out. Mockingbird’s universal acceptance had seemed to cause her to freeze up when it came to further writing.
“I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird’ … I just sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement,” she once said. “I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful (writing) death I'd expected.”
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