News broke Friday that author Harper Lee had died peacefully in her sleep at age 89. The author of To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the greats of American literature.
Nelle Harper Lee was born April 28, 1926, in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama. The youngest of four children, she was intensely private and had few words for interviewers when asked about her upbringing, though she was lifelong friends with her neighbor and fellow author Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany's, In Cold Blood). Lee studied at the University of Alabama and moved to New York City in 1949 to work as an airline reservation clerk.
She wrote in her spare time, and secured a literary agent in 1956. Her initial manuscript for what would become To Kill a Mockingbird found its way in 1957 to the J. B. Lippincott Company publishing house, where editor Tay Hohoff spent 2½ years working with Lee to develop the final novel.
Published July 11, 1960, under the name Harper Lee—dropping the Nelle to avoid people mistaking her name for Nellie—To Kill a Mockingbird drew critical acclaim and immediate success.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of To Kill a Mockingbird. From a commercial standpoint, it has remained a best-seller since its initial publication and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1962. From a cultural standpoint, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and is regarded as a modern classic. It is a tale of morality and racial inequality that is still relevant today and taught in schools across the country.
After the success of Mockingbird, Lee continued to follow her own path in life. She assisted Capote in his research for In Cold Blood in the 1960s, but spent much of her time pursing her passion for reading. Reluctant to give personal interviews, Lee became an enigmatic and elusive figure of American literature.
Her decision in subsequent decades to publish no further novels helped to bolster To Kill a Mockingbird’s reputation, but also left Lee’s legacy open to the occasional salacious rumor. Was she solely responsible for Mockingbird or was the novel—as some conspiracy theorists claimed—written secretly by Capote? Lee handled these stories stoically, with her trademark self-deprecation. She continued to avoid the limelight, spending most of her time living in Monroeville with her sister Alice and only rarely appearing or speaking publicly, such as when she accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
Her last few years were marked by lawsuits over her copyright to Mockingbird and merchandising of the novel and by the surprising release of a second novel, Go Set a Watchman, in 2015. Like many aspects of her life, this release inspired many stories in the media. Had Lee (who suffered a stroke in 2007) really approved its release? Was Watchman truly intended to be a separate novel or was it only an inferior early draft of Mockingbird? While many conflicting accounts were reported, it was ultimately left up to readers to decide the nature of Go Set a Watchman.
The greatest way to honor the memory of Harper Lee is to read and understand her work.