Harper Lee, the American writer whose book “To Kill a Mockingbird” was voted the best novel of the 20th century and became a classroom standard for the study of racial injustice in the U.S., has died. She was 89.
Her death was reported by the New York Times, citing her publisher, HarperCollins. No details were provided.
Lee, who once aspired to be the Jane Austen of southern Alabama, won both critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her 1960 work. U.S. librarians named “To Kill a Mockingbird” the best novel of the 20th century, according to a 1999 survey by Library Journal. The book is among the most popular pieces of fiction ever, having sold about 40 million copies. The 1962 film adaptation won three Academy Awards.
Avoiding the burdens of fame and the challenge of matching the popularity of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Lee didn’t publish another book for 55 years.
In February 2015, her publisher stunned the literary world when it revealed that a different version of her classic book had been discovered among her belongings and would be published in July of the same year under the title “Go Set a Watchman.” Pre-orders for the “sequel,” written before its better-known original, pushed it to No. 1 on Amazon.com before release.
In U.S. classrooms, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is often assigned to middle-school students wrestling with coming-of-age issues and concepts of justice. The story is told through the eyes of a girl named Scout who watches her father — the small-town lawyer Atticus Finch — attempt to save a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in the segregated South of the 1930s.
In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Lee the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
Lee fielded reporters’ questions when the news of her Pulitzer Prize was announced in 1961, and she helped filmmakers publicize the movie version the following year. She then tired of the spotlight and public queries about her next novel and turned away most interviewers after 1964.
Retreating to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, Lee shared a house with her sister and spent a few months each year in New York, staying in a Manhattan apartment she kept for decades.
Though she mostly avoided public appearances, she attended a memorial service for lifelong friend Truman Capote after his 1984 death in Los Angeles. She also remained close to the family of Gregory Peck, who won the Oscar for best actor as Atticus Finch, the character Lee had modeled after her father.
At 80, she surprised fans with a contribution to Oprah Winfrey’s “O” magazine when the talk-show host devoted an issue to reading. In a piece that began “Dear Oprah,” Lee recalled how books were prized in her childhood and cruelly beyond reach of poor whites or black students.
In February 2015, Lee’s publisher announced plans to release “Go Set a Watchman” after the author’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, found the manuscript among Lee’s archives the previous year. Set in the 1950s, with an adult Scout Finch and her father still as the main characters, the 304-page book had initially been rejected by Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, who asked her to tell a story through the eyes of a child.
“I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to ‘Watchman,’ ” she said in a statement, according to the New York Times.
Nelle Harper Lee was born April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. The Great Depression clouded her childhood, though her family survived financially.
The youngest of four children, Lee was a tomboy and early reader. She was named for her maternal grandmother — Ellen, spelled backward. As an author, she used her middle name because she didn’t want readers to mistakenly call her “Nellie.” The character of Scout Finch was thought to be inspired by Lee’s own upbringing.
Lee’s mother, the former Frances Cunningham Finch, suffered from a nervous disorder. She was alternately withdrawn or explosive. In a 2006 biography, Charles J. Shields speculated that her illness prompted her husband, Amasa Coleman Lee, to assume a greater parenting role. He read newspapers and books aloud and gave Nelle an Underwood typewriter so she could write stories with her friend Capote while in grammar school.
“A.C.” Lee, a lawyer, co-owner of a local newspaper and state legislator, had hoped that his younger daughter would become a lawyer and join his firm, following the example of her sister, Alice, 15 years older.
Lee enrolled at Huntingdon College, a women’s school in Montgomery, Alabama, that Alice had attended. After one year, she transferred to the University of Alabama and soon began writing for the campus humor magazine. In her junior year, she became its editor while beginning her first-year law studies.
Lee quickly lost enthusiasm for law school. Her father treated her to a summer abroad at Oxford University in England in 1948. She was no happier upon her return and withdrew at the end of the semester, without even a bachelor’s degree to show for 3 1/2 years of college.
In 1949, she moved to New York, where Capote was flush with the success of his first book, “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” Lee worked as a bookstore clerk, then as an airline-ticket agent while she wrote short stories at night.
Not until late 1956 did she find an agent with the help of Broadway composer and lyricist Michael Brown, who had become a friend. As a Christmas present, Brown and his wife gave Lee a year’s stipend to permit her to write full time.
Within a month, Lee produced the first 50 pages of her novel. She had a publishing contract by year’s end. Lee was awaiting the book galleys in November 1959 when Capote asked her to travel to Kansas with him to investigate a farmhouse slaying for New Yorker magazine. The research would eventually inform Capote’s non-fiction thriller, “In Cold Blood,” based on the massacre of prosperous farmer Herbert Clutter and three family members.
Capote called Lee his “assistant researchist.” Her down- to-earth manner gained entree with townspeople who were put off by Capote’s affectations.
Lee supplied 150 single-spaced, typewritten pages of notes, made return trips to Kansas and helped Capote tighten his manuscript, but her contribution was not acknowledged when the book was published in 1965. Capote simply dedicated “In Cold Blood” to Lee and to his lover, Jack Dunphy.
“It was a betrayal,” Shields wrote in his biography. “She would remain his friend, but their relationship had suffered its first permanent crack.”
If Lee interrupted work on a second novel to help Capote, she also allowed other distractions. In 1966, she accepted a presidential appointment to the National Council on the Arts, serving six years. She also helped nurse Maurice Crain, her literary agent and close friend, in the months before his death from cancer in 1970.
In a 2000 article for the New York Observer, Manhattan bookseller Richard Chalfin wrote about a 1997 phone call he received from Lee, who was seeking help finding a novel. Recognizing her name, he asked why she never wrote another book.
“I said what I had to say,” Lee replied, according to Chalfin.
– With assistance from Laurence Arnold.
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