Harper Lee wrote one of the most beloved American novels, then withdrew from public view for more than half a century, publishing nothing. Late in life she stunned the literary world with a second spectacularly successful novel before dying on Friday in her hometown, Monroeville, Alabama, at the age of 89.
To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 at dawn of the civil-rights struggle, has been called the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of its day. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic, Mockingbird is built around the depredations visited on a black man in the South, Tom Robinson, who is defended against a trumped-up rape charge by a white lawyer named Atticus Finch. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and sold more than 30 million copies in dozens of languages on its way to becoming part of the American canon.
For years Lee shunned interview requests—sometimes with a tart “Hell, no”—and claimed she was finished with writing. So when HarperCollins announced in early 2015 that it planned to publish a new Harper Lee novel called Go Set a Watchman, there was a mixed chorus of delight and dismay. Fans were thrilled by news of a second novel, supposedly written before Mockingbird but carrying the characters forward from the 1930s to the ’50s; skeptics wondered if Lee, who had suffered a stroke and was nearly blind and deaf, was competent enough to approve publication of a long-lost manuscript whose existence she had denied for many years. Tonja B. Carter, Lee’s lawyer, claimed that she had stumbled on the completed manuscript in the summer of 2013, and that Lee endorsed its publication.
In the end, the controversy hardly mattered. Go Set a Watchman had an initial printing of two million copies and, despite some lukewarm reviews, has sold more than a million copies and counting.
Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in Monroeville, Alabama. Her mother’s mental health was fragile; her father, A.C. Lee, was a newspaperman, state senator, and lawyer who once defended a black man and his son on charges they had murdered a white storekeeper. Both defendants were found guilty and hanged. Those events would echo loudly in Mockingbird.
Harper Lee was a tomboy and an avid reader before she reached first grade. She went by her first name, Nelle, but was also known as Miss Frippy Britches, and she befriended an equally precocious neighbor named Truman Capote. The two formed a bond in childhood that would leave an indelible stamp on 20th-century American literature.
After graduating from Monroe County High School in 1944, Lee attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery and the University of Alabama, where she studied law and edited the school’s humor magazine, Rammer Jammer. After spending a summer as an exchange student at Oxford University in England, she dropped out of the University of Alabama without earning a degree, determined to pursue a writing career.
She moved to New York City, where she worked as an airline ticket clerk and wrote on the side. Frustrated by her early efforts, first called Go Set a Watchman, then Atticus, she flung the pages out a window in despair one night, then retrieved them and began a top-to-bottom revision. She moved the action back two decades and made her protagonist, Scout—closely modeled on Lee—a tomboy instead of a young woman. On Christmas Day 1956 Lee received a gift all struggling writers dream of: two friends, Michael and Joy Brown, gave her enough money to quit her day job and write full time for one year.
“It’s a fantastic gamble,” Lee told the Browns, as recounted in a 1961 essay she wrote for McCall’s magazine. “It’s such a great risk.”
“No, honey,” Michael Brown replied. “It’s not a risk. It’s a sure thing.”
Though it took her more than a year, Lee used the money to finish To Kill a Mockingbird.
Before the book’s publication, Lee accompanied Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to help him research an article on the murder of a wealthy wheat farmer and his family, which morphed into Capote’s ground-breaking “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. Both Lee and Capote interviewed the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, before they were executed. The book became a best-seller upon its publication in 1966, but the writers’ friendship suffered because Lee felt Capote failed to acknowledge her sizable contribution.
After Mockingbird was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1962, Lee took a brief spin in the media glare before retreating to Monroeville, where she lived for years in a brick house with her sister Alice, a lawyer who died in 2014 at the age of 103, and who was, along with the women’s father, an inspiration for Atticus Finch.
Harper Lee, who never married, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts. Before her health declined, she continued to visit New York in the summers, touring museums and rooting for the Mets. Her courtly manners and girlish pixie haircut belied a prickly side. In 2013 she sued her literary agent, claiming he had tricked her into assigning the lucrative copyright on Mockingbird to him. That year she also sued the Monroe County Heritage Museum for using her name and trademark to sell souvenir ornaments, refrigerator magnets, and drink coasters. Both cases were settled out of court.
In 1962, during the filming of Mockingbird in Monroeville, Lee, not yet withdrawn from the public stage, agreed to submit to a news conference. A reporter asked her, “Will success spoil Harper Lee?”
“She’s too old,” replied Lee, who was 36 at the time.
“How do you feel about your second novel?” the reporter pressed.
After a pause, Lee said, “I’m scared.”