Harper Lee dies at 89

25 February 2016

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, to Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee. Harper Lee grew up in the small southwestern Alabama town of Monroeville. As a child, Lee was a tomboy and a precocious reader, and she enjoyed the friendship of her schoolmate and neighbor, the young Truman Capote, who provided the basis of the character of Dill in her novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee was only five years old when, in April 1931 in the small Alabama town of Scottsboro, the first trials began with regard to the purported rapes of two white women by nine young black men. The defendants, who were nearly lynched before being brought to court, were not provided with the services of a lawyer until the first day of trial. Despite medical testimony that the women had not been raped, the all-white jury found the men guilty of the crime and sentenced all but the youngest, a twelve year-old boy, to death. Six years of subsequent trials saw most of these convictions repealed and all but one of the men freed or paroled.

Harper LeeHarper Lee, First UK edition,
To Kill a Mockingbird, Lot 211 Auction #49

The Scottsboro case left a deep impression on the young Lee, who would use it later as the rough basis for the events in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lee studied first at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama (1944-45), and then pursued a law degree at the University of Alabama (1945-49), spending one year abroad at Oxford University, England.

Lee lived a frugal lifestyle, traveling between her cold-water-only apartment in New York and to her family home in Alabama to care for her ailing father. In addition, she worked in Holcombe, Kansas, as a research assistant for Truman Capote's novel In Cold Blood in 1959. Ever since the first days of their childhood friendship, Capote and Lee remained close friends. Lee published her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, in 1960 under the guidance of her editor, Tay Hohoff, of the J. B. Lippincott Company. To Kill a Mockingbird won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize. 

To Kill a MockingbirdFirst UK edition, To Kill  a Mockingbird,
Lot 211 Auction #49

The book was made into the well-received 1962 film with the same title, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

The novel has sold more than 40 million copies to date and has been translated into more than 40 languages according to Harper Collins publishers. 

In 2015, publishing house Harper Collins announced a literary sensation, an earlier known work of Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman. Originally written in the mid 1950’s, it was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.

Harper Lee died earlier this month in her sleep of a stroke on the morning of February 19, 2016, aged 89.

AntiquarianAuctions.com will be offering at the next sale a UK first edition, published by Heinemann in London in 1960. For more information, please click here.

View the video, released by The New York Times on Feb 19, 2016