Up until 2015's Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee—who was born on April 28, 1926—was often referred to as a literary one-hit wonder. But while the late, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird only published two novels, she still accomplished some incredible things.
1. Harper Lee roasted a small-minded school board.
In 1966, a Virginia school board unanimously elected to ban all copies of To Kill a Mockingbird from its libraries, citing the book as “immoral." Outraged, Lee wrote a fiery letter to the Richmond News Leader condemning the group’s actions. “Recently,” she wrote, “I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.” Lee went on to compare the officials in question to Orwellian doublethink and capped off her epic beat-down by enclosing “a small contribution … that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.”
2. Harper Lee helped Truman Capote work on In Cold Blood.
Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote asked her to accompany him on a trip to the small town of Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 to investigate the recent murder of a wealthy family under mysterious circumstances. It didn’t take long for Capote to discover that his companion had a much easier time talking to the locals, an ability which proved invaluable to his efforts. Lee was so dedicated to the case that she wrote 150 pages of notes for Capote (who reportedly ignored her suggestion to make the victims more complex). Capote’s best-selling account of the incident, In Cold Blood, became an instant sensation.
3. Harper Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Lee made a rare public appearance in 2007 to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Fellow recipients that year included geneticist Francis Collins, former House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Henry Hyde, and civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks. (See Lee claiming her prize at the 32:36 mark of the above clip).
4. Harper Lee wrote an impassioned defense of books and libraries.
In 2006, Lee composed an open letter to Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine that discussed her love of books:
“[In] an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it. And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up—some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal."
Do you love reading? Are you eager to know incredibly interesting facts about novelists and their works? Then pick up our new book, The Curious Reader: A Literary Miscellany of Novels and Novelists, out May 25!