Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, as your research topic

Harper Lee has died; the author was 89. The childhood friend of Truman Capote, she established her literary reputation on the basis of a single novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Last year saw the release of an earlier draft of her famed book, entitled Go Set a Watchman.

Learn more about books written by Harper Lee. (Credit: USA Today)

Learn more about books written by Harper Lee. (Credit: USA Today)

Casting the beloved character of Atticus Finch as a racist, many were upset by the new book. Comparing the two books is just one of many research paper topics to explore.

Beloved author dies

Born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama, the author grew up with Truman Capote as a childhood playmate. The two included disguised versions of each other in many of their stories and novels—a study of these stories and the details of how the characters were like their real life counterparts would make an interesting research paper. Lee even accompanied Truman Capote as he conducted research in Kansas for his famous non-fiction tale, In Cold Blood. They maintained their friendship until Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird became very successful. At that point, the relationship soured amidst rumors of jealousy on behalf of Capote.

William Grimes shared more about the author’s death in “Harper Lee, Author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Dies at 89” for The New York Times on February 19, 2016. The success of the novel was amplified after the 1962 movie version, starring Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch, was released. Despite this, and many rumors to the contrary, no second novel appeared. Grimes wrote, “for more than half a century a second novel failed to turn up, and Ms. Lee gained a reputation as a literary Garbo, a recluse whose public appearances to accept an award or an honorary degree counted as important news simply because of their rarity.”

Harper Lee and a unique writing career

The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog offered “Harper Lee’s Career by the Numbers” posted by Jennifer Maloney on February 19, 2016, with some intriguing details about the money and popularity of the author’s books—To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. 

In 1959, Harper Lee received a $1,000 advance for To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as a royalty rate of 15 percent. It is not known what the advance was from HarperCollins last year for the release of the book’s earlier draft, entitled Go Set a Watchman. Lee’s initial book vastly outstriped sales of the latter, with Mockingbird having sold more than 40 million copies and Watchman only selling 1.6 million print copies.

Go Set a Watchman causes controversy

The news that an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird was going to be released in 2015 excited fans and the literary world. However, the release of Go Set a Watchman did not offer what many had hoped for. Tom Leonard wrote, “Will Harper’s Sequel Cause a Storm? as the to Kill A Mockingbird Author Unveils a Sequel 55 Years on, There Are Still Some Troubling Questions” on February 6, 2015, for Daily Mail (London) with some insights into the controversy, first of which revolved around Capote.

The falling out between Lee and Capote appears to have boiled down to jealousy. Capote was upset that Lee’s book did so well and that she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. But some close to Capote also hinted over the years that he helped Lee craft and write her famous book. Leonard wrote, “If Go Set A Watchman — being published unedited — is far inferior, does that prove she must have had help with her later masterpiece? And if it turns out to be every bit as brilliant, couldn’t a counter argument simply run that Capote might have written both books?”

Additionally, once it was released Go Set a Watchman upset fans because it cast Atticus Finch as a racist later in life. A research paper could examine the changes of the characters between the two novels for similarities and differences.

Want to learn more about American women writers? Check out Questia—particularly the section on To Kill a Mockingbird.

Did the publishing of Go Set a Watchman permanently damage the reputation of Harper Lee? How will you remember the late author? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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