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Emory acquires Harper Lee letters, memorabilia

Considering she only published two novels, 55 years apart, any letter written by the late Harper Lee tended to have added significance.

And now Emory University is home to a number of them.

   MORE: Harper Lee was a really good writer -- of letters

Emory said Wednesday that a collection of personal correspondence and memorabilia of the “To Kill a Mockingbird” author had been acquired by the university’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.

Harper Lee's book "To Kill a Mockingbird" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

Lee wrote the letters between 1956 and 1961, the year after “Mockingbird” was published to enormous acclaim, becoming an immediate bestseller and winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Lee, a native of Monroeville, Ala. who died there at age 89 in 2016, wrote the letters to a New York friend, Harold Caufield, and his circle of friends, including Michael and Joy Brown. 

   MORE: “Mockingbird” author Harper Lee dies

The Browns played a crucial role in Lee’s literary success, financially supporting her for a year while she drafted one novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” and began work on what would become “To Kill a Mockingbird.” In 2015, Lee once again took the book world by storm when HarperCollins published “Go Set a Watchman,” a sequel of sorts to “Mockingbird” that had long been presumed to be a lost manuscript.

   MORE: Go get a “Watchman:” Stores, libraries ready for new Harper Lee book

Harper Lee called “Go Set a Watchman,” the “parent” book to her Pulitzer Prize winning classic, “To Kill a Mockiingbird.”

Emory acquired the letters from Paul R. Kennerson a retired attorney from  La Jolla, California. Kennerson had met and talked with Emory historian Joseph Crespino who was researching his forthcoming book, “Atticus Finch: The Biography.” Available on May 8, 2018, Crespino’s book is a “cultural and political history” of Finch, the noble lawyer and widowed father in “Mockingbird,” who remerges in “Watchman” as an older and somewhat bigoted figure.

Gregory Peck in his Academy Award-winning role as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defended a black man falsely accused of rape, AP Photo/Universal
Photo: Yvonne Zusel/Talk of the Town

“This correspondence from Harper Lee, some of which show her at home taking care of her ailing father, provides wonderful insight into her life during the critical years when she wrote what would be her only two novels,” says Crespino, the Jimmy Carter Professor of History at Emory. “They provide a window into her life and her views during a period of tumultuous change in southern political life. Read with other historical sources, they offer clues as to why the character of Atticus seems to diverge so sharply between the two novels.”

   MORE: Here’s where to read a long lost Harper Lee magazine article

The acquisition also includes a 35th anniversary edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird” inscribed to Caufield from “Nelle Harper,” her signature to close personal friends. 

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