Writer whose 1961 novel became a defining text of 20th-century literature and of racial troubles in the American south has died in Monroeville, Alabama
Lee, or Nelle as she was known to those close to her, had lived for several years in a nursing home less than a mile from the house in which she had grown up in Monroeville, Alabama – the setting for the fictional Maycomb of her famous book. The town’s mayor, Mike Kennedy, confirmed the author’s death.
Until last year, Lee had been something of a one-book literary wonder. To Kill a Mockingbird, her 1961 epic narrative about small-town lawyer Atticus Finch’s battle to save the life of a black resident threatened by a racist mob, sold more than 40m copies around the world and earned her a Pulitzer prize. George W Bush awarded her the presidential medal of freedom in 2007.
But from the moment Mockingbird was published to almost instant success the author consistently avoided public attention and insisted that she had no intention of releasing further works. That self-imposed purdah ended abruptly when, amid considerable controversy, it was revealed a year ago that a second novel had been discovered, which was published as Go Set a Watchman in July 2015.
The house where Lee lived for years with her sister Alice sat quiet and empty on Friday. The inside of the house appeared unchanged from when she lived there – antique furniture was stacked with books, audio cassettes and gift baskets.
Her neighbor for 40 years, Sue Sellers, said Lee would have appreciated the quiet. “She was such a private person,” she said. “All she wanted was privacy, but she didn’t get much. There always somebody following her around.”
In recent years Lee’s health had declined. Seller said the last time she spent any real time with Lee they went to breakfast together. “The whole way home she drove her big car in the turn lane,” she said. “She couldn’t see. I was scared to death.”
The last time she saw Lee was a few months ago at the Meadows nursing home. Sellers brought flowers. “She just hollered out: ‘I can’t see and I can’t hear!’” Sellers said. “So I just told her goodbye.”
Lee was born in Monroeville in 1926 and grew up under the stresses of segregation. As a child she shared summers with another aspiring writer, Truman Capote, who annually came to stay in the house next door to hers and who later invited her to accompany him to Holcomb, Kansas, to help him research his groundbreaking 1966 crime book In Cold Blood.
Capote informed the figure of the young boy Dill in Mockingbird, with his friend the first-person narrator Scout clearly modelled on the childhood Lee herself.
Lee was the youngest child of lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Finch Lee. Her father acted as the template for Atticus Finch whose resolute courtroom dignity as he struggles to represent a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman provides the novel’s ethical backbone.
Last year’s publication of Go Set a Watchman obliged bewildered fans of the novel to reappraise the character of Finch. In that novel, which was in fact the first draft of Mockingbird that had been rejected by her publisher, Finch was portrayed as having been a supporter of the South’s Jim Crow laws, saying at one point: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?”
Within minutes of the announcement of the novelist’s death, encomiums began to flow. Her literary agent Andrew Nurnberg said in a statement: “We have lost a great writer, a great friend and a beacon of integrity.”
He added: “Knowing Nelle these past few years has been not just an utter delight but an extraordinary privilege. When I saw her just six weeks ago, she was full of life, her mind and mischievous wit as sharp as ever. She was quoting Thomas More and setting me straight on Tudor history.”
Michael Morrison, her publisher at HarperCollins US, said: “The world knows Harper Lee was a brilliant writer but what many don’t know is that she was an extraordinary woman of great joyfulness, humility and kindness. She lived her life the way she wanted to – in private – surrounded by books and the people who loved her.”
In Lee’s home state of Alabama, a center of the violent upheavals over civil rights that immediately preceded the publication of Mockingbird, literary experts reflected on the power of the novel to shift the ingrained assumptions of white Alabamans. Jacqueline Trimble, president of the Alabama Writers’ Forum that bequeaths the annual Harper Lee award for literary excellence, said that the book had a profound effect on white residents of the state.
“She was able to take the politics of the civil rights era and make them human. She showed people that this was about their neighbors, their friends, someone they knew, not just about the issues,” Trimble said.
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, tweeted a quote from Mockingbird: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
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Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird author, dies aged 89
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