Nelle Harper Lee (born April 28,
1926) is an American author known
for her 1961 Pulitzer-Prize winning
novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which
deals with the issues of racism that
the author observed as a child in her
Alabama. Despite being Lee's only
published book, it led to her being
awarded the Presidential Medal of
Freedom for her contribution to
literature. Lee has received
numeroushonorary degrees but has
always declined to make a speech.
Nelle Harper Lee, the youngest of five
children of Amasa Coleman Lee and
Frances Cunningham Finch, was raised
in Monroeville, Alabama. Her first name,
Nelle, was her grandmother's name
spelled backwards. Her mother was a
homemaker; her father, a former newspaper
editor and proprietor, practiced law and served in the Alabama State
Legislature from 1926 to 1938. Before A.C. Lee became a title lawyer,
he once defended two black men accused of
murdering a white storekeeper. Both clients,
a father and son, were hanged. As a child, Lee
was a tomboy, a precocious reader, and best
friends with her schoolmate and neighbor,
the young Truman Capote.
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
After completing To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee accompanied Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to assist
him in researching what they thought would be an article on a small town's response to the murder
of a farmer and his family. Capote expanded the material into his best-selling book, In Cold
Since publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee has granted almost no requests for interviews or
public appearances and, with the exception of a few short essays, has published nothing further.
She did work on a second novel — The Long Goodbye — but eventually filed it away
unfinished. During the mid-1980s, she began a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer,
but also put it aside when she was not satisfied. Her withdrawal from public life prompted
unfounded speculation that new publications were in the works.
In June 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Lee to the National Council on the Arts.
“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
Presidential Medal of Freedom
On November 5, 2007, George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential
Medal of Freedom. This is the highest civilian award in the United States and
recognizes individuals who have made "an especially meritorious contribution
to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural
or other significant public or private endeavors".
To Kill a Mockingbird. (1960) New York: J. B. Lippincott.
"Love — In Other Words". (April 15, 1961) Vogue, pp. 64–65
"Christmas to Me". (December 1961) McCall's
"When Children Discover America". (August 1965) McCall's
"Romance and High Adventure" (1983), a paper presented in
Eufaula, Alabama and collected in 1985 in the
anthology Clearings in the Thicket.
Open letter to Oprah Winfrey (July 2006), O: The Oprah