Haper Lee, the reclusive author of two books – both amongst the most controversial of their time – has passed away at the age of 89. For an author who only published two books in her life, Lee’s place in literary history is assured by the quality of the two and the effect they had on American society.
1961’s To Kill a Mockingbird is considered by many, myself among them, to be the greatest American novel. It introduced the world to Atticus Finch, a principled lawyer who defended a black man against a rape charge in rural Alabama. The novel also introduced iconic characters like Scout Finch and Boo Radley and was adapted into an Academy Award winning film with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Most schools mandate Mockingbird as required reading and, quite frankly, you didn’t go to a good one if they didn’t (mine didn’t, for the record).
Lee became almost as famous for her refusal to discuss Mockingbird and her reclusiveness as she did for the groundbreaking novel itself. She never published another book, gave interviews on the one she had and had been living in an assisted care facility the last few years. All this is why it was a literary bombshell when, after 44 years, she published a sequel to Mockingbird entitled Go Set a Watchman.
Watchman isn’t so much a sequel as it is the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. The publishers wanted something where Scout Finch was a young girl, so Lee returned with Mockingbird. The hand-written draft of Watchman was thought lost for decades until its discover and publication last summer. While Watchman is not the masterpiece Mockingbird is (no other American novel is, after all), it was still the best book of 2015 and challenged readers to accept a more nuanced, realistic and complicated Atticus Finch than the hero-carved-in-marble that had been established over the years.
For my part, I don’t think Watchman tarnishes the character of Atticus Finch. He went to a KKK meeting? I think the important thing is he went ONCE and that to see who was showing up to these things. A product of an isolated southern town, his concerns about racial integration were not spoken from a standpoint of bigotry, but terror over the South seceding from the nation once more. Given that I’m never sure when South Carolina is just going to pop off and do that to this day, it was a perfectly reasonable fear for a man of his birth to hold. What’s not mentioned in many Watchman reviews is how Scout grows into a young lady for her times, a Finch to face the complexities of the coming civil rights era, as Atticus was the Finch the world needed in his generation. Lee’s prose was always a pleasure to spend time with, and I’m glad Watchman was published. Her impact on the literary scene and the social dynamics of racial politics are just as relevant today as when Mockingbird was first published. Her legacy as one of the most powerful novelists America has ever produced is etched in stone.
Full obituary below by Ed Pilkington of Guardian News.
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. George 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.
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 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 More and setting me straight on Tudor history.”
Harper Lee attends the 1962 premiere of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
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, an epicenter 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.”