Taken from “The Writer’s Almanac.”
It’s the birthday of novelist Harper Lee born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama (1926). Childhood friends described Lee as the “Queen of the Tomboys,” unafraid to get in playground fights with boys. Sometimes she beat up the boys who were bullying Truman Capote, who spent summers with relatives in Monroeville, and became one of Lee’s closest friends. Capote’s aunt later wrote: “A dress on the young Nelle would have been as out of place as a silk hat on a hog.”
At Monroe County High School, Lee had a wonderful English teacher named Miss Gladys Watson. Miss Watson demanded that her students abide by the “three Cs” in their writing: clarity, coherence, and cadence. To emphasize these three points, she asked them to read all their work aloud to the class; and they were expected to rewrite their essays to her complete satisfaction. Miss Watson introduced her students to 19th-century British literature, which Lee loved – she especially adored Jane Austen. Years later, she told an interviewer: “All I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.” She went on to the University of Alabama, but felt like a misfit. She began a law program, encouraged by her father, a successful lawyer. But she didn’t like law, and quit after a year. Instead, in 1949, 23-year-old Lee followed her old friend Truman Capote to New York City, where she hoped to become a writer.
She got a job as an airline reservations agent. She rented a small, cold-water-only apartment on the Upper East Side, where she wrote every night at a makeshift desk made from a door set across sawhorses. When she moved to New York, Capote asked his friend Michael Brown, a composer, if he would look after Lee, whom he described as “a shy friend from Alabama.” Lee became close friends with Brown and his wife, Joy, and they recommended a well-respected husband-and-wife team of literary agents. In November of 1956, Lee brought them five short stories. They liked one of them, called “Snow-on-the-Mountain,” but dismissed the other four. They thought she had potential, though, and suggested that she try writing a novel, which would have more commercial promise. After meeting her, one of the agents wrote in an office memo: “The author is a nice little Suth’n gal – from Alabama – who says ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Ma’am.'”
A few weeks later, for Christmas of 1956, Michael and Joy Brown gave Lee a huge gift: enough money to quit her job and spend the year writing. She wrote to a friend: “Aside from the et ceteras of gratefulness and astonishment I feel about this proposition, I have a horrible feeling that this will be the making of me, that it will be goodbye to the joys of messing about.” In mid-January, she delivered her agents the first 50 pages of a novel called Go Set a Watchman.She delivered another 50 pages each week until the first draft was finished. They helped Lee focus the novel more on the character of the lawyer father, retitled the manuscript Atticus, then sent it off to an interested publisher, the J.B. Lippincott publishing house. Lippincott published mostly textbooks, but their one female editor saw potential in Lee’s novel. That editor encouraged Lee to rewrite the novel to focus on the childhood of the main character, Scout; Lee spent two years rewriting the book under her editor’s scrutiny, and finally produced a final version, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). She did not publish another piece of writing until last year, when she published the novel Go Set a Watchman (2015). Lee passed away earlier this year at the age of 89.