For more than 50 years, Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee insisted that she would be completely satisfied if she were to live her entire life with one single title, the classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, as her only published work of fiction. Seven months after the appearance of Go Set a Watchman, the book many fans and literary observers had given up waiting for, the legendary American author has died at the age of 89.
The news site AL.com was the first to break the story, citing “multiple sources” in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Mary Jackson, Monroeville’s city clerk, confirmed the news, according to The New York Times.
Born on April 26, 1928, Nelle Harper Lee was a child of the South, a region that informed her both as a person and a writer. She was an early reader who credits her parents with inculcating in her a love of the written word.
“Do you remember when you learned to read, or like me, can you not even remember a time when you didn’t know how?” she wrote, recalling being read daily stories from her mother, Frances Finch, while her lawyer father, Amasa Coleman Lee, would read to her from “the four newspapers he got through every evening.”
Like her father, she went on to study law at the University of Alabama, but left for New York in 1949 before completing a degree. With dreams of pursuing a literary career, she wrote in her spare time while working as an airline reservations clerk.
At the age of 32, Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird, about crusading lawyer Atticus Finch, who goes to court in the deep South to defend a black man against a rape charge. Told from the perspective of Atticus’s precocious daughter, Scout, the novel was an instant success, and has sold in excess of 40 million copies to date. In 1961, the novel won its author a Pulitzer Prize, and the following year was made into an iconic movie. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his performance as Atticus, and became indelibly associated with the character in the public consciousness.
To Kill a Mockingbird has achieved canonical status: it is still taught in universities and high schools, and is routinely challenged by censors for its racially and sexually charged language and subject matter. Though Lee would not publish another novel for more than 50 years, she accompanied her childhood friend, Truman Capote, to Nebraska during his research for the true crime classic In Cold Blood. A 2009 article by Ed Pilkington calls Lee’s contribution to the work “crucial”: “Delores Hope, who in 1959 was a columnist for the local paper, the Garden City Telegram, also noted Harper Lee’s vital role. ‘Nelle sort of managed Truman, acting as his guardian or mother. She broke the ice for him.’”
Lee stopped giving interviews in 1964, though a 2011 article by Philip Hensher suggests that her reputation as a recluse was exaggerated: “Politely refusing to talk to journalists … is not the same thing as withdrawing from society.” Hensher goes on to suggest that Lee agreed to cooperate with writer Marja Mills on a biography (published in 2014 as The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee), though a letter signed by Lee subsequently denied this, stating that “any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.”
That letter was itself called into question by Alabama lawyer Alice Lee, Harper’s sister, who acted as the author’s business manager until her death in 2014 at the age of 103. “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,” Alice wrote to Mills at the time, according to a lengthy cover article in Bloomberg Business, which coincided with the publication of Go Set a Watchman.
The surprise announcement, in February 2015, of Go Set a Watchman’s existence lit the publishing scene on fire: it rivaled the Harry Potter books for Amazon pre-orders in advance of its July 2015 publication, and subsequently smashed sales records on its first day of availability.
Set in Maycomb, the same fictional Alabama town that served as the backdrop for To Kill a Mockingbird, the follow-up, which takes place 20 years later, dismayed many fans of the earlier book in its depiction of Atticus, who appears as less of an idealized figure. NYT reviewer Michiko Kakutani states that the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman is “a racist who once attended a Klan meeting” – a far cry from the hero most readers remembered. There was much debate in the air following the book’s appearance as to the retroactive effect this new portrait of Atticus would have on To Kill a Mockingbird’s reputation.
Writing for The New Republic, Sarah Weinman bemoans the various ways Lee’s voice has been silenced or subsumed over the years – from the persistent rumours that Capote had a large hand in the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird to the recent jockeying among various parties for a place at the trough in the lead-up to Go Set a Watchman’s publication, and speculation that other unpublished manuscripts exist. Where Go Set a Watchman is concerned, Weinman writes that the book “felt, albeit in a more clumsily written, unedited way, like Lee’s attempt to speak out for herself.”
In any event, it does not appear as though either the mixed reactions that greeted Go Set a Watchman or the litigiousness and scandal that pervaded Lee’s final years have tarnished the public’s affection for the earlier book, or its author. Weinman is surely correct in her assessment that there will be future squabbles over unpublished material that Lee left behind, and various people will attempt to exploit these to make a buck. Nevertheless, To Kill a Mockingbird has secured Harper Lee a place in the annals of American literature, and that position is probably unshakable. Though there will no doubt be readers and critics who revisit the work in the wake of Lee’s passing, the original novel seems assured of a continuing spot in the front ranks of 20th-century fiction.