Celebrating Harper Lee With 5 Fascinating and Little-known Facts
American treasure and literary icon Harper Lee died in her sleep this morning in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. She was 89. Lee is best known for writing the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The fictional story, loosely based on major events and people from Lee’s childhood, bravely tackled themes of rape and racism with warmth, humor, and grace. The book went on to become a classic in American literature, instantly capturing the hearts and minds of American readers.
Lee led a very private life following Mockingbird’s publication, but her impact remained as prominent as ever. She earned a spot on the National Council of Arts in 1973, and was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 by President Bush for her courageous book and her success. The novel is still read in countless schools today, and has been voted the best novel of the 20th century by Liberty Journal. Although she worked on a crime novel in the 1960s, Lee did not publish another book until last year, when Go Set a Watchman, a manuscript written prior to Mockingbird, was published, making major headlines for the revelation that beloved character Atticus Finch was actually a racist.
While Lee is celebrated for her literary accomplishments, she also serves as a figure of inspiration for many reasons. To honor her, we compiled some little-known facts about her life that exemplify her impact, dedication, and grace.
Lee was a New York import struggling to make it in the big city, just like all of us.
In 1949, Harper Lee dropped out of law school and moved to New York in pursuit of her writing dreams, as we all do. And just like us, those dreams did not take off right away. Lee worked as an airline ticket clerk for years. Her big break came through the generosity of close friends Michael and Joy Brown, who decided to support her for a year so she could write full time. It was during this precious year that To Kill a Mockingbird was born, and the world was never the same, showing that sheer dedication and patience can lead to great things.
Lee earned more money than we can imagine, yet managed to spend less than us.
There was a big reason why Lee did not publish another novel for 55 years: she simply did not need to. Until her death, Lee earned royalties ranging from nearly one to three million dollars per year from Mockingbird. One book gave her the means for extravagant living for the rest of her life. And yet, us poor people probably spend more money than her. She switched between living in her modest New York apartment and and a one-story house in Monroeville with her sister. She bought her clothes at Walmart, only gambled at quarter slot machines, and drank coffee from McDonald’s, proving just how financially savvy and humble she was. She graciously gave much of her earnings to charitable causes under anonymous names.
To Kill a Mockingbird once outvoted the Bible.
Only one book in history has beaten the Bible in some form, and that book was none other than Mockingbird itself. In a 2009 survey conducted by OnePoll, the prized novel was named the most inspiration book of all time, forcing the Bible to settle for second place. The Bible. Talk about impact. Of course, the Bible has outsold every book on the planet, but thanks to Lee, it hasn’t claimed every title under the sun.
Lee’s hometown is now a popular tourist attraction because of her.
If your parents ever suggested Alabama as a family vacation spot, now you know why. Some 30,000 people descend on Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, every year to see what inspired the book’s fictional setting of Maycomb. The museum has special permanent exhibits dedicated to both Lee and Capote, and the town performs a live production of Mockingbird every year, with the second half taking place in the actual courtroom of the novel. Only influential people can turn a small town into a tourist attraction, and Lee managed to accomplish this without even trying.
Lee was the original anti-bullying advocate.
Lee’s long-lasting friendship with fellow writer Truman Capote has gone down in literary history, causing rampant speculations about their collaboration and apparent fallout. But when they were both children, Capote was targeted by other students for his sensitivity and fabulous sense of style. Unlike the quieter girls, Lee would not stand for it, and never failed to defend Capote from the tough kids. Lee fearlessly rebelled against the tolerance of bullying that prevailed at the time, displaying her heart of gold and caring nature.
Images via PBS.com, ruralswalabama.org, history.com, and voxsartoria.com.
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