Harper Lee, elusive author of the best-selling novels “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Go Set a Watchman” has died at 89.
According to the publishing house HarperCollins, Lee passed away “peacefully” on Feb. 19. In a statement, Michael Morrison, the company’s president and publisher, wrote, “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.”
Nelle Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Ala., one of four children. She was known to those close to her by the name, Nelle, which came from her grandmother’s name, Ellen, spelled backwards. She grew up next to Truman Capote, and remained friends with him until he died in 1984.
Capote moved to New York to pursue a writing career, and Lee followed in his path in 1949, at age 23. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel about race and justice in the South, earned her immediate international acclaim when it was published in 1960. The book earned her a Pulitzer Prize and became a movie in 1962, with Gregory Peck in the starring role of Atticus Finch.
But Lee was a notorious recluse, and refused to talk about her life and work publicly for decades. In one of her last interviews, with a radio station in 1964, she said: “All I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”
The literary world was rocked in February 2015, when HarperCollins announced that a second book by Lee, “Go Set a Watchman,” had been discovered. The manuscript, set two decades after the events of “Mockingbird,” was an earlier version of the classic novel, and controversy abounded about whether or not Lee was of sound mind to agree to its publication. The book portrayed Atticus Finch, one of the most revered figures in American fiction, as displaying racist tendencies.
“I thought she was extremely courageous to write that book about her hometown,” Mary Tucker, a retired African-American schoolteacher in Monroeville, told Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric. “Of course, she said it was fiction, but we could identify some of the characters from people in town.”
Mary Badham, who played Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” told Couric she was confident that Lee had given her blessing for “Watchman” to be published. “I feel like Miss Nelle is a mirror for us to look in. We have to look at that reflection and see what it is that we really need to focus on, in order to better ourselves,” Badham said. “Is this really the world we want to live in? Miss Nelle makes us look at these questions, and focus on them, and give us the ability to work through these issues. Sometimes in funny ways. Sometimes in very upsetting ways.”