NEW YORK (AP) — Harper Lee, the elusive novelist whose child’s-eye view of racial injustice in a small Southern town, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” became standard reading for millions of young people and an Oscar-winning film, has died. She was 89.
Lee died Friday, publisher HarperCollins said in a statement. It did not give any other details about how she died.
“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,” Michael Morrison, head of HarperCollins U.S. general books group, said in the statement.
For most of her life, Lee divided her time between New York City, where she wrote the novel in the 1950s, and her hometown of Monroeville, which inspired the book’s fictional Maycomb.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960, is the story of a girl nicknamed Scout growing up in a Depression-era Southern town. A black man has been wrongly accused of raping a white woman, and Scout’s father, the resolute lawyer Atticus Finch, defends him despite threats and the scorn of many.
The book quickly became a best-seller, won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a memorable movie in 1962, with Gregory Peck winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus. As the civil rights movement grew, the novel inspired a generation of young lawyers, was assigned in high schools all over the country and was a popular choice for citywide, or nationwide, reading programs.
By 2015, its sales were reported by HarperCollins to be more than 40 million worldwide, making it one of the most widely read American novels of the 20th century. When the Library of Congress did a survey in 1991 on books that have affected people’s lives, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was second only to the Bible.
Lee herself became more mysterious as her book became more famous. At first, she dutifully promoted her work. She spoke frequently to the press, wrote about herself and gave speeches, once to a class of cadets at West Point.
But she began declining interviews in the late 1960s and, until late in her life, firmly avoided making any public comment at all about her novel or her career. Other than a few magazine pieces for Vogue and McCall’s in the 1960s and a review of a 19th-century Alabama history book in 1983, she published no other book until stunning the world in 2015 by permitting “Go Set a Watchman” to be released.
“Watchman” was written before “Mockingbird” but was set 20 years later, using the same location and many of the same characters. Readers and reviewers were disheartened to find an Atticus who seemed nothing like the hero of the earlier book. The man who defied the status quo in “Mockingbird” was now part of the mob in “Watchman,” denouncing the Supreme Court’s ruling that school segregation was unconstitutional and denouncing blacks as unfit to enjoy full equality.
But despite unenthusiastic reviews and questions about whether Lee was well enough to approve the publication, “Watchman” jumped to the top of best-seller lists within a day of its announcement and remained there for months.
Born in Monroeville, Alabama, Nelle Harper Lee was known to family and friends as Nelle (pronounced Nell) — the name of a relative, Ellen, spelled backward. Like Atticus Finch, her father was a lawyer and state legislator. One of her childhood friends was Truman Capote, who lived with relatives next door to the Lees for several years.
Her novel, while hugely popular, was not ranked by many scholars in the same category as the work of other Southern authors such as Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor. Decades after its publication, little was written about it in scholarly journals. Some critics have called the book naive and sentimental, whether dismissing the Ku Klux Klan as a minor nuisance in Maycomb or advocating change through personal persuasion rather than collective action. The novel was also considered patronizing for highlighting the bravery of a white man on behalf of blacks.