Nell Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird


Nell Harper Lee

Nell Harper Lee

Nell Harper Lee was born in a small southern town called Monroeville, Alabama.  Her father was a town’s defense lawyer but many from the town were not fond of Lee since he defended the black.  In those days, before the Civil Rights Movement, black and white just never seemed to get along. 

Nell never felt any different toward a person because of the color of their skin.  She grew up being known as a tom-boy, but she adored her father and would sit as he delivered his closing argument, for a black man.

Her best friend lived next door but moved away at ten; visiting every summer. Both he and Nell were curious and big storytellers; Nell told the press they didn’t have toys back then, so we told stories, and many were about the old house in town where children stayed clear, but not her and her friend next door:  Truman Capote.

Her older sister went on to become a lawyer like her dad, and Nell, she started working for Eastern Airlines, as a stewardess; she refers to it as a waitress.  Truman Capote introduced Nell to his friends, Michael and Joy Brown from New York City during one of her layovers.  The Browns insisted on Nell staying with them in New York City, and became close friends.

The Browns adored Nell and noticed she had more to give than serving people on an airplane.  Following a discussion with his wife, one Christmas they handed Nell an envelope, and Mr. Brown said, “Take one year off from work and write what you please.”  They had months together to read her character sketches, and believed this would be a special gift, to a talented individual.

Nell did as they requested, but not without hesitation.  She told the Browns, “I set four times a week to write while working,” but the Browns had faith in Nell, she could do more.

While she spent the year working on her manuscript she published several articles for McCalls Magazine.  It would be in 1957 when her manuscript “Atakis” was born.

Nell continued to send out one copy after another of her manuscript but received one rejection letter after another, feeling she let the Browns down. Her friends continued to push her, while Nell was giving up hope, believing the country did not want to read about a white lawyer defending a black person in the South. Nell thought her writing was not for the time. She may have been right.

During those few interviews she granted, she talked about her life growing up in the South when the Clan was still tieing up black men and women, keeping them out of public places, and were always at fault when things happened.  In 1957 when she completed Atakis, it was difficult for some people to read when she talked about the black and white mixing like normal people.

Nell believed it taught others not to judge people by the color of their skin, but she learned it wasn’t easy to tell a white person how she felt, and now it was written in black and white.

Her manuscript finally caught the eye of a literary agent by the name of M. Crain.  Her agent helped her shape the novel and he sent it to ten publishers, several people thought it read like a collection of true stories and not a novel. It would be Keen-Whitley who saw more in Nell’s work, and he signed a contract, his editors and Nell would work together for two years, when the novel was ready, and the name changed to, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  On July 11th, 1960 the novel was published.

Nell never did believe her work would sell, but it would be to her shock to learn her book would be the best-selling book, into the millions, and schools would pick it up as part of their English Literature Classes.

Nell never wanted to be in the public eye, so she moved to the cape, where she lived a quiet life, and began another novel.  During an interview in the 60’s she talked a great deal about the character Scout, telling the people she was just irresistible and funny, great company, and grew attached to her – her smart”ass” voice, as she called it, and a tom-boy attitude.  She had fun building her up to compete with the boys, and ask questions, “Why should I wear a dress?”

Her mother had told her southern girls wore dresses, but she insisted pants worked just as good, besides, Scout, she told the press, never thought of beauty.

One thing that Nell Harper Lee did was tell her story like a child, and she lived her life through those eyes.  She mentioned during the interview that isolation was one identity crisis of Scout, she played with the boys but she was lucky to have such an imagination along with her next-door neighbor.  She missed him when his family moved away, only to visit in the summer.  Those stories made up a great deal of her book.  She said, “I wrote the truth about the old south during the depression.”

In the book, Scout was the same age as Nell during the depression, and they both had a father who was the town defense lawyer.  She kept talking about how black people were treated terrible and remembered those conversations around the dinner table.

During the interview, her older sister claimed Nell was born with an imagination.  Our daddy, she told the press, gave us this old typewriter and it would be Nell and the neighbor boy who wrote the stories.  Some people believed the neighbor boy was really Dell Harris.  Capote spent his years writing while he spent time in Monroeville during the summer; raised by his mother’s family.  He was known as the author of “In Cold Blood,” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Nell said she returned to Monroeville to find all the homes gone, her mother died in 1951, her brother died at the young age of 31.  With all this grief she found peace in writing, and that’s when the juices began to flow.  She mentioned that the old courthouse, where her father worked, is now a museum in town, since 1961.

“Everyone wanted to know what was real and what wasn’t in the book.  I told them writers write about their life and turn it around, making magic with what they knew.”  The boy Boo, he kept coming back she said, from one chapter to the next.

You know all towns had a boy like Boo, and house children stayed clear off.  “If you take these people you knew, and start telling lies about them, then you have the character.”  Nell was proud to tell how she reached her characters.

Nell waited a long time, in her eyes, to be published, but in 1960, people were throwing bricks through the windows of a black person, nothing changed. She told the press she hoped justice would prevail.  She really told what was wrong with the system in a child’s point of view.   She also remembered the black man charged with his crime, and how he left the courtroom with his head down, never looking up.

Nell and Capote parted ways when he went to Nashville, and she was in New York.  She said he got into things like drugs and was stoned, and she did not want anything to do with that lifestyle.  The real friendship between two children came when “To Kill a Mockingbird” won several prizes, and his books were left behind.  She knew he was living a life on drugs and alcohol.

Nell would own a percentage of the film rights and was grateful to those who created the film.  She called the movie a masterpiece.  She mentioned they found the perfect Scout.  She adored Spencer Tracy and Gregory Peck.

In 1964 during her last interview, she called the people ignorant.  The difference in race happens worldwide, she mentioned, and it goes on all over the world.  She told the reporters nothing had changed since she recalled the thirties.

She retired on the money from her book and film, living on Fire Island in 1964, and started that second novel but it never came to be, she said once you have the best it’s hard to write another.  She recalled Hemingway saying, “Writers have one story.”

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