News & Politics

Harper Lee, Author of 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' Dead at 89

Lee's 1961 novel became a defining text of 20th-century literature and of racial troubles in the American south.

Photo Credit: wikipedia

Harper Lee, whose 1961 novel To Kill a Mockingbird became a national institution and the defining text on the racial troubles of the American deep south, has died at the age of 89.

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 40 million copies around the world and earned her a Pulitzer prize.

From that point the author consistently avoided public attention and insisted that she had no intention of publishing further works. But 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.

Lee was born in Monroeville in 1926 and grew up under the forced racial divide of segregation. As a child she shared summers with another aspiring writer, Truman Capote, who 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 modeled 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 Moore and setting me straight on Tudor history.” 

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.”

Ed Pilkington is the chief reporter for Guardian US. He is a former national and foreign editor of the paper, and author of Beyond the Mother Country.

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