Nearly every American knows of acclaimed novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee. We first met her in high school, where her landmark book on race relations in the United States, To Kill A Mockingbird, became part of our literary and civil rights education. Today, nearly every American will mourn her.
She passed away peacefully last night in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama—the inspiration for the setting of Mockingbird—at the age of 89.
Published in 1960, Mockingbird launched Lee to instant fame and notoriety. While she continued to write articles, essays and non-fiction, even assisting her friend Truman Capote in the groundwork for his 1966 true-crime book, In Cold Blood, she would never again write and publish another work of fiction. As she is famously quoted in saying about her one-time hit, “I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
In 2015, what is now considered to be an earlier draft of Mockingbird was published under the novel’s original title, Go Set A Watchman. The manuscript was reportedly discovered in a safe deposit box belonging to Lee in 2014 while she was in a nursing home. It was published in February 2015 by HarperCollins, who claimed it was a sequel to Mockingbird, a claim that is now widely rejected.
A native of the South, her work was published at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1960, just five years after Rosa Parks declined to give up her seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. Lee called her work a love story at heart, and later wrote in an essay published in Vogue, “Without love, life is pointless and dangerous. Man is on his way to Venus, but he still hasn’t learned to live with his wife. Man has succeeded in increasing his life span, yet he exterminates his brothers six million at a whack. Man now has the power to destroy himself and his planet: depend upon it, he will – should he cease to love.”
In 1966, Lee wrote a letter challenging a school board in Richmond, Virginia that had attempted to ban her book as ‘immoral literature.’ “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct,” she wrote. “To hear that the novel is ‘immoral’ has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.”
Lee was passionate not just about her own book, but about all literature. In a 2006 letter to Oprah Winfrey, she described her Depression-era upbringing in a small village of Alabama as “privileged,” citing literacy as her main form of wealth: “We were privileged. There were children, mostly from rural areas, who had never looked into a book until they went to school. They had to be taught to read in the first grade, and we were impatient with them for having to catch up.” A book lover at heart, she decried in her letter our modern “abundant society, where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms.” Books were—and had always been—Lee’s preferred medium. “And, Oprah,” she writes, “can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up — some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.”
This morning, her family gave a statement to the press: “This is a sad day for our family,” said her nephew. “America and the world knew Harper Lee as one of the last century’s most beloved authors. We knew her as Nelle Harper Lee, a loving member of our family, a devoted friend to the many good people who touched her life, and a generous soul in our community and our state. We will miss her dearly.”
Farewell, Ms. Lee. Thank you for your wisdom and your words.