Harper Lee

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Date: Feb. 26, 2016
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,533 words

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With the enormous popular and critical success of her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee established herself as a leading figure in American literature. According to Dorothy Jewell Altman in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, To Kill a Mockingbird, "a regional novel with a universal message, combines popular appeal with literary excellence, assuring Harper Lee's place in American letters."

Lee did not release any new fiction for more than four decades and was adamant that the grueling pressures of celebrity had dissuaded her from ever publishing again. In 2015, however, she elected to publish her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. The novel was released in July 2015.

To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by six-year-old Jean Finch, nicknamed "Scout," who, along with her older brother Jem, watch as their father, Atticus Finch, an attorney in Maycomb, Alabama, defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, daughter of Bob Ewell. During the three years of the trial, the two children come to an understanding of prejudice as their father stands his ground in defending a man he believes to be innocent. Scout and Jem are taunted by classmates and neighbors who object to the idea of a white man defending a black man, and the situation intensifies until Robinson is threatened with lynching; he is only saved by Jem and Scout's innocent intervention. At the trial, the jury finds Robinson guilty, even though Atticus proves he cannot possibly have committed the crime. Despite this truth and all his hard work, Atticus can't break through Maycomb's deeply entrenched racial prejudice that "all Negroes lie, that all Negroes are basically immoral beings, that all Negro men are not to be trusted around ... [white] women." According to a Booklist contributor, the story is told with "a rare blend of wit and compassion." The novel moves "unconcernedly and irresistibly back and forth between being sentimental, tough, melodramatic, acute, and funny," wrote a New Yorker reviewer.

One of the novel's subplots revolves around attempts by the two siblings and their friend Dill Harris to draw out Arthur "Boo" Radley, a local recluse who has remained hidden in the Radley home since his teenage years, when he was arrested for a prank and then released into his father's stern custody. Locked in the house, a victim of his father's religious notions and misplaced family pride, Radley eventually becomes a victim of the town's prejudice, and is feared by both adults and children. The children's wild ideas about the unseen Boo--that he eats raw squirrels and wanders the town by night--reflect the town's misconceptions about race. Dill, who is fascinated with Boo, convinces Jem and Scout that they should try and entice Boo to come out of his house so they can see him. Boo responds to this attention, secretly leaving gifts for the children in a hollow tree, mending Jem's pants when he tears them while climbing over the Radleys' fence to spy, and covering Scout...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000058400