Harper Lee was an ordinary woman as stunned as anybody by the extraordinary success of To Kill a Mockingbird.
“It was like being hit over the head and knocked cold,” Lee — who died Thursday at age 89, according to publisher HarperCollins — said during a 1964 interview, at a time when she still talked to the media.
“I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”
To Kill a Mockingbird may not be the Great American Novel. But it’s likely the most universally known work of fiction by an American author over the past 70 years, that rare volume to find a home both in classrooms and among voluntary readers, throughout the country and beyond.
Lee was cited for her subtle, graceful style and gift for explaining the world through a child’s eye, but the secret to the novel’s ongoing appeal was also in how many books this single book contained. To Kill a Mockingbird was a coming-of-age story, a courtroom thriller, a Southern novel, a period piece, a drama about class, and — of course — a drama of race.
“All I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” she once observed.
The story of Lee is essentially the story of her book, and how she responded to it. She wasn’t a bragger, like Norman Mailer, or a misanthrope like J.D. Salinger or an eccentric or tormented genius. She was a celebrity who didn’t live or behave like a celebrity. By the accounts of friends and Monroeville residents, she was a warm, vibrant and witty woman who played golf, fished, ate at McDonald’s, fed ducks by tossing seed corn out of a Cool Whip tub, read voraciously, and got about to plays and concerts. She just didn’t want to talk about it before an audience.
To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant and ongoing hit, published in 1960, as the civil rights movement was accelerating. It’s 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.
Praised by The New Yorker as “skilled, unpretentious, and totally ingenious,” the book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a memorable movie in 1962, with Gregory Peck winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus. Mockingbird inspired a generation of young lawyers and social workers, was assigned in high schools all over the country and was a popular choice for citywide, or nationwide, reading programs, although it was also occasionally removed from shelves for its racial content and references to rape.
By 2015, sales topped 40 million copies. 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 elusive to the public 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 mid-1960s and, until late in her life, firmly avoided making any public comment about her novel or her career. Claudia Durst Johnson, author of a book-length critical analysis of Lee’s novel, described her as preferring to guard her privacy “like others in an older generation, who didn’t go out and talk about themselves on Oprah or the Letterman show at the drop of a hat.” According to Johnson, Lee also complained that the news media invariably misquoted her.
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 work until stunning the world in 2015 by permitting the novel 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. The tone was far more immediate and starker than for Mockingbird and readers and reviewers were disheartened to find an Atticus 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 whether Lee was well enough to approve the publication, Watchman jumped to the top of bestseller lists within a day of its announcement and remained there for months. Critics, meanwhile, debated whether Watchman would damage Lee’s reputation, and the legacy of Atticus as an American saint.
Lee was in the news at other times, not always in ways she preferred. She was involved in numerous legal disputes over the rights to her book and denied she had co-operated with the biography The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee, by Marja Mills.
Some occasions were happier. She wrote a letter of thanks in 2001 when the Chicago Public Library chose Mockingbird for its first One Book, One Chicago program. In 2007, she agreed to attend a White House ceremony at which she received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Around the same time, she wrote a rare published item — for O, The Oprah Magazine — about how she became a reader as a child in a rural, Depression-era Alabama town, and remained one.
“Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books,” she wrote.
By 2014, she had given in to the digital age and allowed her novel to come out as an e-book, calling it “Mockingbird for a new generation.”
Born in Monroeville, 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.
Capote became the model for Scout’s creative, impish and loving friend Dill. In the novel, Dill is described as “a pocket Merlin, whose head teamed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies.”
Lee’s friendship with Capote was evident later when she travelled frequently with him to Kansas, beginning in 1959, to help him do research for what became his own bestseller, the “non-fiction” novel In Cold Blood. He dedicated the book to her and his longtime companion, Jack Dunphy, but never acknowledged how vital a role she played in its creation.
Charles J. Shields, in the first book-length attempt at a biography of Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, showed how Lee helped Capote gain entrance to key figures in the murder investigation and provided keen observations and myriad notes that Capote wove into his book. (He also debunked a long-standing rumour that Capote had actually written much of Mockingbird.)
In the 2005 film Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman won the best actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Capote struggling with his demons as he works on the book. Catherine Keener was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Lee. The next year, Sandra Bullock took the role of Lee in Infamous, with Toby Jones as Capote.
Lee said in the 1960s that she was working on a second novel, but over time it dropped from view and never reached a publisher.
Lee researched another book, a non-fiction account of a bizarre voodoo murder case in rural east Alabama, but abandoned the project in the 1980s.
Lee, who attended Huntingdon College in Montgomery as a freshman, transferred to the University of Alabama as a sophomore, where she wrote and became editor of the campus literary magazine. After studying to be a lawyer like her father and older sister, Lee left the university before graduating, heading to New York to become a writer, as Capote already had done.
Lee worked as an airlines reservation clerk in New York City during the early 1950s, writing on the side. Finally, with a Christmas loan from friends, she quit to write full time, and the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird reached its publisher, J.B. Lippincott, in 1957.
The manuscript, according to the publishing house, arrived under the title Atticus. The title later became To Kill a Mockingbird, referring to an old saying that it was all right to kill a blue jay but a sin to kill a mockingbird, which gives the world its music.
Lee worked with the editor Tay Hohoff in bringing the book to its final form, a period when Lee was scrimping financially and dealing with the difficulties of rewriting.
“Though Miss Lee then had never published even an essay or a short story, this was clearly not the work of an amateur or tyro,” the editor wrote in an account published by Lippincott in 1967. “… She had learned the essential part of her craft, with no so-called professional help, simply by working at it and working at it, endlessly.”
Capote, in a letter to an aunt in July 1959, said that a year earlier Lee “showed me as much of the book as she’d written, and I liked it very much. She has real talent.”
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 has 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.
O’Connor, in an October 1960 letter, said, “I think I see what it really is — a child’s book. … I think for a child’s book, it does all right.” Decades later, Toni Morrison would call it a “white saviour” narrative, “one of those,” she told The Associated Press, expressing a common objection that so many books by white people reduced blacks to passive, secondary roles.
Parallels were drawn between Lee and Margaret Mitchell, another Southern woman whose only novel, “Gone With the Wind,” became a phenomenon made into a beloved movie. But Mitchell’s book romanticized the black-white divide Lee’s work confronted it, although more gently than novels before and since.
Mockingbird features Scout’s often meandering recollection of the people — some eccentric, such as the reclusive Boo Radley — in rural Maycomb County, during the years when her brother Jem reaches adolescence and she enters school. Some critics said it relied at times on stereotypes, such as the mean, trashy whites making false charges against a virtuous black. But the tomboy Scout and the quietly courageous Atticus Finch drew praise as memorable, singular creations.
The book’s tension is built around the lynching atmosphere in Maycomb as the black man goes on trial, a scenario reminiscent of the Scottsboro Boys rape case of the same period. Scout, Dill and Jem, whose playful curiosity takes scary turns, witness the drama of an adult world with its own frightening lessons.
“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 honour and conduct,” Lee wrote to an editor in the 1960s. “Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”