The Impact of Harper Lee on American Culture

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

“You see, more than a simple matter of putting down words, writing is a process of self-discipline you must learn before you can call yourself a writer” (Harper Lee). According to Laura Fine (2016), Harper Lee, born as Nelle Harper Lee, was raised in Monroeville, Alabama with a successful lawyer as her father. (Fine, 2016). Her most famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird includes Atticus Finch, a father and well known lawyer who defends an African American man. Her father as well as the changing times of the 1950s when she composed the novel are strongly expressed through her work. At the time, the Civil Rights Movement became a strong aspect in American society as leaders such as Martin Luther King became famous for fighting for racial equality. The novel reflects the racist time in which it was written through the main conflict, in which an African American man is accused of committing rape against a young white woman. According to Audrey Clinton (2016), To Harper Lee’s surprise, the novel won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and sold over thirty million copies. (Clinton, 2016). Clinton also stated, Lee’s novel brought a sense of unity among the nation, seen by the thousands of letters she received from states across the country sharing they have seen the expressed ideas of racism. (Clinton, 2016).This was unexpected, for Lee was basing the plot off of her experiences in the south, as Clinton expresses. This is a reflection of the impact her work made. Harper Lee was one of the most influential writers of her time and still today in American culture.

Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, AL on April twenty-eighth of 1926. Harper Lee was primarily raised by her father, according to Laura Fine (n.d) “Harper Lee is the daughter of Amasa Coleman Lee, a lawyer who was all accounts apparently rather like the hero-father of her novel in his sound citizenship and warm heartedness” (Fine, n.d). Lee’s father’s occupation as a lawyer in Monroeville, AL during the time period she grew up in is critical to understanding her childhood, for she was raised primarily in the 1930s, a time with little national improvement. As Shields (2008) explains, “It was the 1930s, the Great Depression, when children went to school in hand-me-downs that had been patched and altered several times. Many children came to school without shoes, their dirty heels thumping on the pine floors” (Shields, 2008). During this time following the stock market crash, the nation struggled economically as well as socially, as racial tension grew. Shields (2008) goes on to say, “The one subject never discussed, in my experience, was race relations. The prevailing view was that there was no reason to upset the status quo, and most were willing to continue existing conditions indefinitely” (Shields, 2008). The combination of racial inequality and economic depression were greatly influential in Lee’s life, expressed by the appearance of both in her novels. According to Shields, Lee went to a high school in Alabama, instead of a Girls’ Industrial School, which her mother hoped she would attend (Shields, 2008). According to Youngzine (2016), “After high school, Lee joined the University of Alabama where she became the editor of the college magazine. She was accepted into the law program, but dropped out before her final year to become a writer” (Youngzine, 2016). Although her first novel was not released until 1960, Lee had been writing since she was a child. Harper Lee’s childhood impacted her ability to impact society through her works To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

Throughout the writing career of Harper Lee, she only published two well known novels, yet she has many short stories she kept in private. Lee’s works are often assumed to be based on her childhood due to the setting of her novels having similarities to her personal childhood, however Lee states, according to Clinton, “It is all fiction, only autobiographical in the sense it is about a small town. None of the incidents in the book ever happened to me as a child. I didn’t have an eventful childhood,” she said, explaining that most reviewers make the mistake of taking the story for her own life” (Clinton, 2016). Both To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman strongly relate to issues of the time they were written, yet still are equally impactful. The online periodical, “The Life, Death, and Career of Harper Lee” (2018) states “At a time when so many machine-tooled novels are simply documentaries disguised behind a few fictional changes, it is pleasing to recommend a book that shows what a novelist can accomplish with quite familiar situations” (The New York Times, 2018). Lee’s work is often shared in school due to the relevance that her work continues to show today. The online periodical “To Kill a Mockingbird Returns to Mississippi School’s Reading List After Outcry” (2017) shares “The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee has been taught in countless classrooms and influenced generations of readers”(Hauser, 2017). Although her novels are recommended to young adults, her writing’s countless lessons relate to people of all ages. To Kill a Mockingbird was Lee’s first novel, starting her legacy.

One of Lee’s most famous novels is To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel explores the morality of humans through a court case with much controversy in the 1930s. Lee is often recognized for portraying the setting properly. According to Clinton (2016), “The book is a record of the general spirit of something. This was life in the 30s. This is the way it was was with the children in the south” (Clinton, 2016). Lee was capable of capturing the details so accurately for her own experiences growing up in this time period in the south. The novel expresses the racial injustice at the time through a court case, Scout, the main character’s, father defense of a black man in the case. Fine (n.d.) states “Scout and her brother, Jim, learn the principles of racial justice and open mindedness from their father, whose just and compassionate acts include an unpopular defense of a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl” (Fine, n.d). The novel is sometimes found controversial for its blunt use of racial words and situations. Referring to a high school in Mississippi, the periodical “To Kill a Mockingbird Returns to Mississippi School’s Reading List After Outcry” states “The book was still available in the library, but that the eighth-grade curriculum would use another book because some of the language ‘makes people uncomfortable’.” (Hauser, 2017). Although her novel is not favored by everyone, the novel has received many awards for its excellence, including the Pulitzer Prize. The newly found sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman continues the story and Lee’s legacy.

Although Lee’s most famous work is To Kill a Mockingbird, a sequel called Go Set a Watchman came out 55 years later. The novel picks up the story many years later, however has a twist as “Atticus, who was known for his efforts to promote racial equality, has turned into segregationists!” according to the periodical “Goodbye Harper Lee..” (2016). Although Lee’s first novel was a great success, she waited centuries to publish the sequel for according to the periodical “The Life, Death, and Career of Harper Lee” (2018) “It became the subject of heated debate over whether it would live up to its predecessor, how the manuscript was discovered, and how Ms. Lee decided to publish it.” (The New York Times). The novel is known as the sequel, however Lee admitted it was To Kill a Mockingbird’s first draft. According to Fine (n.d.) “Go Set a Watchman, written before To Kill a Mockingbird but essentially a sequel featuring Scout as a grown woman who returns to her childhood home in Alabama to visit her father, was released in 2015” (Fine, n.d). The novel shares similar ideas, stirring up controversy and ideas of hypocrisy. Lee’s impact through her novels will never fade from society.

Harper Lee’s writing continues to have an impact on American society today due to its important messages. Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird “received a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide” (Fine, 2016). Through winning awards and by selling tens of millions of copies, Lee’s work continues to show influence today. Her novels have been translated into many different languages as Youngzine explains, “It has been translated into 40 languages and more than a million copies are sold each year” (Youngzine, 2016) It is clear Lee’s work has left an impact across the world not only through her novel, but also the films that her novels have inspired. According to Fine, “It became a memorable film in 1962 and was filmed again in 1997” (Fine, 2016). Through classrooms, book clubs, and movies, Lee’s work has continued to influence society. As Lee states herself, “Real courage is when you know you’ve licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”


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