Harper Lee, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ author, dead at 89

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(CNN)  – Harper Lee, whose debut novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’,  immortalized her name with its story of justice and race in a small Southern town and became a classic of American literature, has died. She was 89.

Her death was confirmed today (Friday) by the City Hall in Monroeville, Alabama, where she lived.

Harper Lee
Harper Lee

“Mockingbird,” which was published in 1960, was drawn from elements of Lee’s childhood in Monroeville, Alabama. In steady prose shaded by memory and lyricism, she describes how an impulsive girl, Scout Finch, her older brother Jem, their friend Dill and a variety of other townspeople get caught up in the case of Tom Robinson, a black man who’s been accused of rape in the Depression-era town of Maycomb, Alabama.

Through it all, no character is more indelible than that of Scout’s widower father, Atticus Finch. The scrupulous, fair-minded lawyer who defends the falsely accused Robinson in a racist courtroom set a standard for goodness and bravery that still resonates more than 50 years later.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand,” Atticus says to Scout at one point. “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see through it no matter what.”

The book won the Pulitzer Prize, and Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the acclaimed 1962 movie, earned an Oscar for best actor. Finch was named the greatest hero in movie history in a 2003 American Film Institute survey. His reputation is such that a 2010 poll by the American Bar Association Journal was titled ‘The 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers (Who Are Not Atticus Finch)’.

An earlier draft of the book, titled ‘Go Set a Watchman’, was published in 2015. The book was criticized for a different portrayal of Atticus, who voices racist sentiments, and questions arose as to whether Lee actually wanted it released.

Despite mixed reviews, the book was one of the top sellers of 2015.

Throughout all this, Lee maintained a low profile. She had assisted her friend Truman Capote, the basis for Dill, while he researched his novel “In Cold Blood,” and though he reveled in the praise and fortune that came with fame, she resisted it.

“I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird’,” she told critic Roy Newquist for an interview published in 1964.  “I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”

Even as ‘Mockingbird’ became a fixture on high school reading lists and demands for her became ever more pronounced, she took shelter in New York and Alabama, hiding in plain sight. It wasn’t that she was reclusive, exactly; it’s that she preferred to let her work speak for itself.

At one event in her honour — and there were many — she was asked to address the audience at the Alabama Academy of Honor. She turned down the opportunity.

“Well, it’s better to be silent than be a fool,” she said.

‘I kept at it’

Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville on April 28, 1926. She was the youngest of five children born to Amasa Coleman (A.C.) Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch. Though A.C. was not a widower like Atticus, Lee’s mother suffered from mental illness, so she and her siblings were essentially raised by her father. The two became very close.

She met Truman Persons, who was two years older, as a child. The tomboyish Lee and the sometimes petulant Persons, who was sent away by his parents to spend his summers in Monroeville, became close friends and would spend hours reading and making up stories. Recognizing his daughter’s imaginative temperament, A.C. Lee gave her an Underwood typewriter. She carried it everywhere.

HARPER LEE: FAST FACTS

Lee attended the University of Alabama, including a short stint in law school, but didn’t finish. Instead, she moved to New York where Truman Persons, now Truman Capote, had established himself as one of the country’s leading writers.

Lee, too, wanted to write, but had little time to pursue the vocation until a pair of Capote’s friends, Michael and Joy Brown, gave her a Christmas gift: They would pay all her expenses for a year. Lee took two to write ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Though the book seems effortless, she told Newquist it came in stops and starts.

“Naturally, you don’t sit down in ‘white hot inspiration’ and write with a burning flame in front of you,” she said. “But since I knew I could never be happy being anything but a writer, and ‘Mockingbird’ put itself together for me so accommodatingly, I kept at it because I knew it had to be my first novel, for better or for worse.”

After she finished “Mockingbird,” Capote — fresh off the success of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — invited her to assist him on a new project: the story of a murdered Kansas family, the Clutters. Lee became part secretary, part interviewer, part go-between for the flamboyant Capote. The work they did would become the foundation of Capote’s 1966 best-seller, “In Cold Blood.”

“Mockingbird” was published in July 1960 and became an immediate best-seller. Indeed, it’s never stopped selling; as of 2006, it had sold 30 million copies and moves a million more each year.

Lee was caught off guard by its success.

“I can’t say that [my reaction] was one of surprise. It was one of sheer numbness. It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold,” she told Newquist.

Book to screen

The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was optioned for a movie. Lee was wary of Hollywood’s attention but was allowed some input. Her choice for Atticus was Spencer Tracy, but he was unavailable. The studio’s first choice was Rock Hudson.

When Gregory Peck was chosen, he traveled to Monroeville to meet with Lee. He became so attuned to the role that Lee burst into tears the first time she saw him in character. The two became lifelong friends. After filming concluded, Lee gave the actor her father’s prized pocket watch; later, Peck’s grandson was named for the author. (By Todd Leopold) 

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