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‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ author Harper Lee dies at 89

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Harper Lee

Harper Lee

Harper Lee, one of America’s most celebrated novelists whose masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird” was read by millions worldwide, has died, her publisher and officials confirmed Friday. She was 89.

A spokeswoman for Harper Collins in New York said Lee passed away peacefully late Thursday. The Pulitzer-winning author shunned the spotlight for decades and spent her final years living in seclusion in Monroeville, Alabama, where she was born.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is considered one of the great classics of 20th century American literature, and is standard reading in classrooms across the world.

Published in 1960 and drawn from Lee’s own experiences as a child, it came to define racial injustice in the Depression-era South.

It tells the story of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman and the courageous lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defies his community to defend him.

The novel sold 30 million copies and won huge critical acclaim, thrusting Lee into the limelight, winning her the Pulitzer in 1961 and an avalanche of publicity.

Her fame was sealed when the novel was adapted into a Hollywood film that won three Academy Awards in 1963, including an Oscar for Gregory Peck for his portrayal of Finch, one of the best-loved characters in American fiction.

“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,” said Harper Collins president Michael Morrison.

“She lived her life the way she wanted to — in private — surrounded by books and the people who loved her,” he added.

n a rare insight, the novelist admitted in 1964 she had been completely caught off guard by being catapulted into the nation’s consciousness by her novel.

– Wit sharp as ever –

“I hoped for a little, but I got rather a whole lot and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected,” she said, joking about her expectation the novel would be a critical flop.

For decades she stayed out of the public eye, claiming to have said all she wanted in “Mockingbird” and vowing never to publish another book.

But in 2015, she upended the literary world by publishing the unedited manuscript of “Go Set a Watchman” — her first novel written in the 1950s which was essentially a first draft of “Mockingbird.”

The manuscript was an instant popular bestseller but it was mauled by critics, and its release sparked torrid speculation that the author, who suffered a stroke in 2007, was not of sound mind.

Lee’s London-based agent Andrew Nurnberg said Friday it had been “an utter delight” and an “extraordinary privilege” to know her.

“When I saw her just six weeks ago, she was full of life, her mind and mischievous wit as sharp as ever,” he said. “We have lost a great writer, a great friend and a beacon of integrity.”

Born Nelle Harper Lee in April 1926, she was the youngest of four children. Her father was a lawyer and a direct descendant of Civil War general Robert E. Lee.

Lee grew up during the Great Depression in a remote village where the few available books provided the only entertainment. She never married, and books remained forever her first love.

Known as a tomboy as a child, she counted author Truman Capote among her childhood friends — and often stood up for him when he was picked on as a sissy. She would later work as an assistant on Capote’s novel “In Cold Blood,” which examined a multiple killing in Kansas, and was dedicated to Lee.

– Medal of Freedom –

A precocious child, Lee learned to read early and had devoured all kinds of literature by the time she started school. She also an early flair for writing even though her family hoped she would follow her father into law.

After a spell as an exchange student at Oxford University in England, she quit law school at The University of Alabama and headed for New York in 1949 to follow her dream of being a writer.

She worked for a while as an airline reservation clerk, until one Christmas when friends gave her enough money to live for a year without working so she could concentrate on writing.

Written before “Mockingbird,” the draft she released last year as “Watchman” tells a similar tale of small-town racism but recounted from a different perspective.

While her famous novel is told through the eyes of Finch’s young daughter, Scout, “Watchman” is narrated from perspective of a grown-up Scout living in New York and coming home to the South for a troubled visit.

But critics pointed to a number of troubling inconsistencies between the two — most notably that the hero Finch is portrayed in the manuscript as a man who harbors racist opinions.

The manuscript’s release sparked a furious backlash — partly because so little was known of Lee, who lived in a nursing home with a strictly controlled visitor list and who refused any request for interviews.

She made a rare public appearance in 2007, when then-president George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civil honor.

She also quietly attended annual award ceremonies held by The University of Alabama for a writing contest about her book.

Her sister, Alice, who was her gatekeeper until her death aged 103 in 2014, explained in 2002 why her sister never seemed to make headway with a new book.

“I’ll put it this way. When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more? Would you feel like you’re competing with yourself?”



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