Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Happy Birthday, Harper Lee!

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was born on April 28th, 1926, making today her birthday! [For those of you who are interested in such things, today is also the birthday of our fifth president, James Monroe (1758), the American actor Lionel Barrymore (1878), the Swedish-born actress Ann-Margret (1941), comedian and talk-show host Jay Leno (1950), and bad-boy golfer John Daly (1966).]

She was born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, a descendent of General Robert E. Lee and the youngest of four children. Her father was a lawyer and newspaper editor who served  as state senator. Lee was a voracious reader with a big imagination and an admitted tomboy.

After studying law in college, she moved to NewYork City and worked as an airline reservations clerk until the financial and emotional support of friends helped her pursue writing as a career. After she put together a group of stories about life in in the South, her editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, encouraged her to work them into a novel. She did, and To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960.

The book was an immediate bestseller and won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 1961. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publishing of this book -- the only book Harper Lee has ever written (or at least that has been submitted for publication). Next month Harper -- the publisher, not the writer -- will bring out a special hardbound 50th anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. There are more than 30 million copies of TKAM in print, in many languages, and in a rare feat for any book, the book has never been out of print since it was first pubished. That is an amazing accomplishment.

In another rare feat, the movie based on the book is just as spectacular as the book itself. Lee became close friends with Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch (Finch was her mother's maiden name) in the movie -- in fact, his grandson Harper Peck Voll is named for her.

In 2007, Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature -- having only written a single book, which reinforces just how monumental that one book has been. If you haven't read TKAM in awhile, Harper Lee's birthday and the book's 50th anniversary are perfect incentives to dig into it again. And if you've never read the book -- OMG, as they say in the texting world, get off the computer and start reading it pronto!

Happy Birthday, Harper Lee, and thank you for your beautiful book.

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