Harper Lee and the South Dakota Connection

Festival authors and the first The Big Read brought Harper Lee closer to South Dakota readers

As the South Dakota Humanities Council celebrates the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize, we also remember the late Nelle Harper Lee and highlight our state’s connections with the Prize winner’s work.

Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, died in her sleep on Friday, Feb. 19 in Monroeville, Alabama, where she lived. She was 89 years old and best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel which became a classic in modern American literature.

In 2006, the SDHC was one of ten organizations in the U.S. selected to launch local reading programs in the first year of The Big Read an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts. We highlighted Lee’s pivotal text To Kill a Mockingbird through a mix of public events and private book discussions throughout South Dakota. Through The Big Read, the text is now part of the SDHC’s Lending Library.

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Harper Lee’s life and work have played part in the work of two of our past Festival of Books authors – Charles Shields and Mary McDonagh Murphy. Both have tied their documentary work to Lee and her classic piece of fiction and are go-to resources on the author (take note in this NPR piece, The Measure Of Harper Lee: A Life Shaped By A Towering Text).

Shields released his biography of Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, in 2006. The biography became a New York Times bestseller and the precursor to the young adult version, I am Scout. He presented at the 2015 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood, a timely presence given the 2015 summer release of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

In an interview for our blog in March 2015, Shields said he unearthed information about the once-forgotten manuscript while doing his research for the biography. With the news of her death, Shields is now working on a 50,000 word revision, to be released in July 2016.

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Back to 2006. Shields also joined us in South Dakota for The Big Read in March 2006 in Sioux Falls, in advance of the release of Mockingbird. He's pictured above with Rosella Blunk, a retired drama instructor, before the city's St. Patrick's Day parade. Blunk also wrote an exclusive readers theatre version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was performed in Sioux Falls. Mary Badham (pictured below), the actress who portrayed Scout in the 1962 movie version, was also in Sioux Falls to connect with fans of the story during a meet and greet at Barnes and Noble and a film screening of To Kill a Mockingbird.

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Murphy – an Emmy Award-winning film writer, producer, and director – is best known for her documentary on Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and the accompanying bestseller Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of To Kill a Mockingbird. Murphy presented at the 2013 Festival of Books in Deadwood.

To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, sheds light on racial attitudes and tensions in the Deep South of the 1930s. Lee based the novel on events she observed growing up in Alabama. Told through the eyes of a young girl named Scout, the novel follows life in a small Southern town during a controversial rape trial. Lee’s novel is a staple taught in English classrooms and provides a meaningful look at racial inequality.

South Dakota-based reading groups can borrow this classic text through our Lending Library with the Reading Group Toolkit program. With a $50 application fee, our program provides groups with copies of the text and a humanities scholar to lead a book discussion.

Harper Lee was an important author who wrote about life as she saw it and ultimately changed the way we view those around us. Her impact still resonates across South Dakota as her novel is read in our classrooms and homes, and continues to inspire our communities. For further reading, we suggest the following:

  • The Pulitzer Prize website offers the official news of Harper Lee’s death, as well as a link to further resources for information on Lee at al.com. 
  • Al.com provides extensive photos, videos, and articles on Harper Lee’s personal life. Visit the website to continue learning about Lee and read her obituary.
  • Harper Lee was known for keeping her career and personal life out of the spotlight. To read more about her background and instant success with her first novel, check out this article by the New York Times
  • Head over to NPR.org for more information about the reaction to Harper Lee’s death in the news, and comments from President Obama.