Harper Lee, Author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Dies at 89

By Ross Brenneman — February 19, 2016 2 min read
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Author Nelle Harper Lee, who emerged as a literary superstar in the 1960s after writing To Kill a Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89, reports, citing multiple sources.

Lee published Mockingbird in 1960, and it quickly became a staple among high school English teachers. A movie adaptation followed two years later starring Gregory Peck as the book’s patriarch, Atticus Finch. Estimates show that more than 40 million copies of To Kill a Mockingbird have been sold since its initial publication, making it one of the most-read novels of all time.

The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. In reviewing considerations for the award that year, the Pulitzer jury praised Lee as a bright spot for American literature:

The stream of new talent which constantly revitalizes American fiction produced at least two first novels of unusual distinction. The first and more ambitious of these was 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' [sic], by Harper Lee. ... What starts out quietly as a picture of small town life is developed with authentic artistry into a climactic courtroom class, in which not only a Negro prisoner is on trial but also the cherished, age-old mores of the South itself. Miss Lee has set it all down with affection, humor and understanding, eschewing sentiment yet favoring pathos."

Born in Monroeville, Ala., in 1926, Lee eventually moved to New York to pursue writing. In the 1950s she submitted a manuscript to Lippincott for a book called Go Set a Watchman, about a young woman named Jean Louise Finch who comes back home to the South to see how life has moved on in her absence. Lee’s editor, however, Tay Hohoff, convinced her to write a new book featuring Jean as a young girl coming to grips with racial injustice in her hometown; those revisions eventually became Mockingbird.

In the five decades following Mockingbird‘s publication, Lee did not publish another book and was generally media-shy. But she continued to earn accolades: In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Lee with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In 2015, though, publisher HarperCollins dropped a bombshell: an announcement that it would publish Go Set a Watchman. Watchman quickly became a bestseller, propelling Mockingbird up the bestseller chart once again as well. The publication of that novel was embroiled in controversy, however, with accusations that Lee had never intended to have Watchman published, and that one of her lawyers had strong-armed Lee into reversing course. Lee had suffered a stroke in 2007, and personal accounts, including her sister Alice’s, had suggested Lee was not of sound mind toward the end of her life.

But Watchman proved to be something special nevertheless, igniting new discussions about the character of Atticus Finch, a role-model lawyer in Mockingbird who was presented as an unapologetic racist in Watchman. Both novels served as entry points for teachers to help students understand race.

Lee returned to Monroeville later in her life, to help care for her sister; Alice Lee died in 2014. The cause of Harper Lee’s death has yet to be determined.

Image: Author Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, on Aug. 20, 2007. —Rob Carr/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.