Before They Were Famous: Harper Lee

Harper Lee
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Despite her status as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee remains a mystery to many readers. Lee has earned a reputation for being notoriously private, living in hermit-like seclusion for many years. However, her recent decision to release a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird has inspired me to re-examine this writer’s early life and career.

With an intense interest, I began an investigation into Lee’s life, uncertain of what I might reveal. However, much of what I uncovered seemed entirely expected. In her youth, Lee was regarded as a tomboy who fought with other children on the playground and talked back to teachers. Even well into college, she resisted conformity and never quite fit in even at Alabama University, where she joined a sorority.

Lee dropped out of law school in order to pursue her true passion–writing. But she spent a great deal of time working odd jobs in New York before ever being published. Finding herself in a most curious circumstance, the would-be author received a gift from a close friend of which many writers could only dream.

As a Christmas present, Broadway lyricist Michael Brown insisted on supporting Lee fully for a year so that she would have the opportunity to work on her first novel. By the end of this time, Lee had completed the manuscript for To Set a Watchmen, later retitled Atticus and then, eventually, To Kill a Mockingbird. An instant success, the book was widely acclaimed and even earned Lee a Pulitzer Prize the year after its publication.

Though perhaps what is most amazing about this story is that the book’s creation is owed almost entirely to the generosity of a seldom-acknowledged friend. In its own way, the coming-of-age story we have all come to know and love as To Kill a Mockingbird seems to be an uncanny sort of Christmas miracle. As a fan of the original novel, I can only hope that its sequel will be a compelling revival, though it certainly seems too full of all the exciting promise of an unexpected gift.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Managing Editor & Submissions Manager

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