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Mainstream Media Get It Wrong Again: Novelist Harper Lee Not Descendant of Confederate General

Finally: a sequel. The publishing world is abuzz with the news that HarperCollins will publish Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, this July.

The 88-year old Lee’s first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, a tale of race relations and justice in the American South of the 1930s, was published 55 years ago in 1960 and became an instant classic. In 1962, her novel was made into a motion picture, and actor Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his portrayal of small town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch, a character inspired by Lee’s own father, Amasa Coleman Lee.

Several mainstream media outlets, including USA Today and International Business Times, inaccurately stated in their reports of the new Harper Lee novel that she is a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Ms. Lee, however, does not descend from the famous Confederate general, as ten minutes of research would easily confirm.

As Charles Shields wrote in his 2008 biography of Ms. Lee: I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee:

The Lees had long been Deep South Southerners. Nelle’s [Harper’s first name] father [Amasa Coleman Lee] was the son of a Civil War veteran, Cader Alexander Lee, a private who fought in 22 battles with the 15th Alabama Regiment. (Her family is not related to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, as encyclopedias claim.)

A brief search of genealogical records publicly available at Rootsweb.com also confirms that Harper Lee is not a direct descendant of the famous general, whose loyalty to his native Virginia was well documented historically. Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 to Henry (Lighthorse Harry) Lee III and his wife Anne Hill Carter in Westmoreland County, Virginia, and died in Lexington, Virginia in 1870.

In contrast, Harper Lee’s Alabama roots extend back to her great-grandfather, Tobias Lee, who came to Dale County, Alabama from Darlington, South Carolina some time between 1824 and 1840. Born in Monroeville, Alabama, Harper Lee split her time between her Alabama home and New York City for many years until she returned to live permanently in Monroeville.

Harper Lee and Robert E. Lee may share a common ancestor in Colonel Richard Lee I, an Englishman born around 1617, who arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1639 as a young man and became the patriarch of the powerful Lee family of Virginia. By the late 1700’s however, Harper Lee’s ancestors resided in the Carolinas, while Robert E. Lee’s ancestors remained Virginians through and through.

If genealogical records publicly available at Rootsweb.com are reliable, Harper Lee’s great-great grandfather, James Lee of Darlington, South Carolina may have been General Robert E. Lee’s third cousin. If so, that would make General Robert E. Lee and Harper Lee very distant collateral relations–third cousins four times removed.

Go Set a Watchman is set in the 1950s in the same small Alabama town as To Kill a Mockingbird, but happens two decades after the events described in the first novel. It features the same main characters: Scout, now a young woman, and her father, Atticus Finch.

HarperCollins released this statement from Ms. Lee on Tuesday:

In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.

The publisher plans an initial printing of 2 million copies.

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