Did you know that a struggling young Harper Lee once received one year’s wages as a gift from a friend with the note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” She used her time off to write “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
To Kill a Mockingbird
“ I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected. ”
—Harper Lee, quoted in Newquist, 1964
While enrolled at Monroe County High School, Lee developed an interest in English literature. After graduating in 1944, she went to the all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery. Lee stood apart from the other students – she was not interested in fashion, makeup, or dating. Instead, she focused on her studies and on her writing. Lee was a member of the literary honor society and the glee club.
Transferring to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Lee was known for being something of a loner and an individualist. She did make a greater attempt at a social life there, joining a sorority for a while. Pursuing her interest in writing, Lee contributed to the school’s newspaper and its humor magazine, the Rammer Jammer. She eventually became the editor of the Rammer Jammer.
In her junior year, Lee was accepted into the university’s law school, which allowed students to work on law degrees while still undergraduates. The demands of her law studies forced her to leave her post as editor of the Rammer Jammer. After her first year in the law program, Lee began expressing to her family that writing – not the law – was her true calling. She went to Oxford University that summer as an exchange student. Returning to her law studies that fall, Lee dropped out after the first semester. She soon moved to New York City to pursue her hopes of becoming a writer.
Lee arrived in New York City in 1949, aged 23. She struggled for several years, working as a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines and for the British Overseas Air Corp (BOAC). While in the city, Lee was reunited with old friend Truman Capote, one of the literary rising stars of the time. She also befriended Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Brown and his wife, Joy. Having written several long stories, Harper Lee found an agent in November 1956. The following month at the Browns’ East 50th townhouse, she received a gift of a year’s wages from them with a note: “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” She quit the airline and devoted herself to writing. Within a year, she had a first draft.
She eventually showed the manuscript to Tay Hohoff, an editor at J. B. Lippincott & Co.. At this point, it still resembled a string of stories more than the novel Lee had intended. Under Hohoff’s guidance, two and a half years of rewriting followed. When the novel was finally ready, she opted to use the name “Harper Lee”, rather than be misidentified as “Nellie”.
Published July 11, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate bestseller and won great critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. It remains a bestseller with more than 30 million copies in print. In 1999, it was voted “Best Novel of the Century” in a poll by the Library Journal.