Harper Lee, famed author of one of America (and the world’s) most beloved novels that saw the horror of racism in the South through a child’s eyes, To Kill A Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89.
The Monroeville, Alabama native’s passing was confirmed this morning [Friday, February 19] by AL.com. The youngest of four children of lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee, Harper (born Nelle Harper Lee) moved to New York in 1949 to pursue a literary career. She submitted her manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird to publishers J.B. Lippincott & Co. in 1957 and after revisions, it was published in July 1960 to instant acclaim and won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year.
“I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird,’ ” Ms. Lee told a radio interviewer in 1964. “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it well enough to give me encouragement.” Instead, she said, “I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.”
From Lee’s New York Times tribute:
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was really two books in one: a sweet, often humorous portrait of small-town life in the 1930s, and a sobering tale of race relations in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era. Looking back on her childhood as a precocious tomboy, the narrator, Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, evoked the sultry summers and simple pleasures of an ordinary small town in Alabama. At a time when Southern fiction inclined toward the Gothic, Ms. Lee, with a keen eye and a sharp ear for dialogue, presented “the more smiling aspects” of Southern life, to borrow a phrase from William Dean Howells.
At the same time, her stark morality tale of a righteous Southern lawyer who stands firm against racism and mob rule struck a chord with Americans, many of them becoming aware of the civil rights movement for the first time. The novel had its critics. “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book,” Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter to friend shortly after the novel’s appearance. Some reviewers complained that the perceptions attributed to Scout were far too complex for a girl just starting grade school and dismissed Atticus as a kind of Southern Judge Hardy, dispensing moral bromides.