Nelle Harper Lee, the author behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird,” died in her hometown, Monroeville, Alabama, her publisher HarperCollins confirmed Friday morning. She was 89.
“Mockingbird,” Lee’s first book, was an international bestseller, selling more than 40 million copies since its publication in 1960. The following year, Lee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In 1962, the book was adapted to the screen with actor Gregory Peck portraying the steely lawyer Atticus Finch, who served as the moral compass in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Alabama, a Southern community embattled in racial tension.
Finch defended Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman, in court. Robinson is one of several characters in the book that are crippled by injustice and intolerance. Lee’s coming-of-age story is celebrated as a cornerstone of American literature and predated several defining moments in the civil rights movement.
Before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the voting rights march in Selma, Finch gave his 6-year-old protagonist, in both the book and film, some advice to navigate the racism that surrounded her: “You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Wayne Flynt, a longtime friend of Lee, told the NewsHour last year that “Mockingbird” had a nuanced take on “the innocence of childhood and about the corruption of most of the institutions that were important like the church, the courts, the school.”
Lee herself emphasized the universality of her book. In 1962, she told the Birmingham Post-Herald that “Mockingbird” wasn’t a “‘racial’ novel.”
“It portrays an aspect of civilization, not necessarily Southern civilization,” she said.
Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, the town that would later form the basis for Maycomb in “Mockingbird.” Casey N. Cep at the New Yorker described Monroeville as “the kind of town that feels like it’s at least a hundred miles from anywhere else.” The novel’s success brought unprecedented name recognition to the small town, which adopted the novel as a point of pride, naming more than one business after its title. But it also brought contention when issues like lawyer Tonja Carter’s handling of Lee’s writing became a “polarizing issue,” according to The New York Times.
Last February, HarperCollins announced that it would publish a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird” in July from a manuscript that had been hidden for decades before Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. It was Lee’s second published book in 55 years.
The news came as a huge surprise to readers who had pored over “To Kill a Mockingbird” since childhood. “Go Set a Watchman,” set 20 years after Mockingbird ends, shows another side to the beloved Atticus Finch, painting him as a man who attended Klan meetings and questions black and white integration.
“Go Set a Watchman” was actually an early draft for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” according to a statement Lee released through HarperCollins. After writing “Go Set a Watchman,” Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff advised her to rewrite the book through the eyes of Scout as a young girl. Lee said in her statement:
“I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it (the original book) had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”
The book drew no small amount of controversy as critics questioned whether Lee, who her HarperCollins editor Hugh Van Dusen said was growing “progressively deafer and more blind” in an interview with Vulture last year, consented to publishing the manuscript.
But others lauded the insight the book provided into Lee’s early writing as well as Jim Crow Alabama. “I think Go Set a Watchman is a piece of social history in a way. It looks back at Alabama in the mid-50s when a lot of things that are at issue today were fermenting,” Mary McDonagh Murphy, who filmed Lee for a documentary on her work in 2015, said.