Harper Lee, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ author, dead at 89

Harper Lee, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ author, dead at 89

Famed for her pioneering novel concerning Southern racial injustice and personal integrity, Harper Lee's surprise 2015 “sequel” may actually have been “Mockingbird” draft.

Harper Lee being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, November 5, 2007. (White House photo, public domain)

WASHINGTON, January 19, 2016 – Harper Lee, whose 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” became an instant national bestseller, a literary cause célèbre and eventually a hit 1962 film has died at age 89. Her longtime publisher, HarperCollins and the mayor of Monroeville, Alabama, her hometown, confirmed the news, according to Deadline.

Neither the cause of Lee’s death nor final arrangements have been made available at this time.

Prize-winning first novel, prize-winning film

Lee’s famous novel, which concerned the state of racial injustice in the American South during the 1950s, generated a firestorm of controversy and discussion upon its publication, thrusting the first-time published novelist reluctantly into the limelight. Since its initial publication, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has never been out of print.

Her novel’s by-now-legendary status was further enhanced when it was adapted for Robert Mulligan’s film version, which starred renowned actor Gregory Peck as the novel’s quietly brave and principled hero, small town lawyer Atticus Finch. Finch, a white man, chooses to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) accused of raping a white girl, incurring the wrath of the local white townspeople, potentially endangering his own young children.

Also starring in the film was Robert Duvall, then a young relative unknown, who played the part of the mysterious, reclusive “Boo” Radley.

The film was a great success, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three, including Peck’s Oscar for Best Actor.

Essentially a bit of a recluse herself, Lee was overwhelmed by her novel’s success and celebrity and was pressured to write another. She never did, or at least that’s what most of the writer’s fans and her publisher thought, as she retreated from the limelight for the rest of her life.

All that changed in 2015, however, when a new Harper Lee novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” was announced last February, excerpted in the Wall Street Journal last and subsequently published last summer amidst considerable controversy and dispute.

Harper Lee, famous writer, literary recluse

Nelle Harper Lee (1926-2016) was born in Monroeville, Alabama, the youngest of Francis Cunningham and Amasa Coleman Lee’s four children. Her father had launched his career as the editor and publisher of a local newspaper before he became a lawyer and politician, later serving in the Alabama State Legislature.

Intriguingly, during his legal career, Lee’s father represented two black men who’d been accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Both were later found guilty and hanged. The incident clearly served as the inspiration for Harper Lee’s first and—for the longest time—only novel.

After the intense outburst of fame associated with both her novel and its prize-winning film adaptation, Lee eventually fled New York, where she’d moved like many writers do, returning to a quiet life back in Monroeville.

Her life remained mostly uneventful after that, save for an odd friendship with another extremely talented but even odder author named Truman Capote. She’d actually accompanied Capote at his invitation on some of his research expeditions for “In Cold Blood,” the so-called “non-fiction” novel that became his own magnum opus.

But as time went by and as Capote’s behavior became ever more outrageous and unpredictable, this friendship slowly and quietly faded away.

“Go Set a Watchman:” Sequel or draft prequel? The controversy continues

Although Lee had once promised she’d deliver another novel, she never fulfilled that promise, retreating from the limelight for roughly 50 years.

But suddenly, a year ago this month, the literary world was shocked to learn that a new Harper Lee novel had either been written or “discovered,” and would be published by HarperCollins during the summer of 2015. Unlike the “new” work by another famously reclusive author, the late J.D. Salinger—which also was allegedly to appear in 2015—HarperCollins actually delivered the goods on schedule, publishing “Go Set a Watchman” in July of 2015.

An instant best-seller, selling out of its initial print run of 2 million copies in short order, Lee’s new novel immediately caused a sensation upon its release. Not only did the new book revisit Atticus Finch and his family well after the original story, as related by his now grown up daughter “Scout.” It was also revealed that in his heart, Atticus was actually, like his neighbors, a racist, too—not the quietly progressive lawyer familiar to fans of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The biggest question in the minds of many: Was “Watchman” really a “new” sequel? Or was it an earlier version of “Mockingbird,” set in a different time and narrated by a different voice. Allegedly discovered “accidentally” by Lee’s new attorney, Tonja B. Carter—who’d replaced Lee’s late sister as her representative—“Watchman,” according to some, had been around for decades. It may have been the original draft for “Mockingbird,” a novel that had received a great deal of editorial attention before it was published.

Worse, back in 2007, the same year she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush, she had suffered a serious stroke, resulting in steadily declining health from that point on. There is some question as to whether she clearly understood what Ms. Carter was setting in motion with HarperCollins.

Writing for the New York Times on the occasion of the new novel’s February 2015 announcement, Alexandra Alter was one of the first to question the nature of Lee’s new sequel, noting

“Some critics and observers expressed concern about whether Ms. Lee had played a meaningful role in approving the deal and questioned why, after a 55-year hiatus, she had suddenly decided to publish again.

“Ms. Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 and has been living in an assisted-living facility. Her sister, Alice Lee, a lawyer who was her companion and her protector from public scrutiny, died last fall.”

Further, Alter interviewed “Mr. [Andrew] Nurnberg, Ms. Lee’s agent for international rights.” According to Alter,

“Mr. Nurnberg said she had taken issue with his description of the new book as a sequel. He recalled, [s]he said: ‘This isn’t the sequel. This is the parent to ‘Mockingbird.’ ”

Upon the new book’s publication last summer, again in the New York Times, Joe Nocera wrote an even more scathing commentary on the new novel, essentially accusing all involved in its publication of conspiracy and fraud and providing considerable evidence that “Watchman” had indeed been a long-existing early draft of “Mockingbird,” concluding

“So perhaps it’s not too late after all to point out that the publication of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ constitutes one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.”

Nocera’s animus toward owner-publisher Rupert Murdoch, who controls both HarperCollins and the Wall Street Journal shines through in this article, undercutting somewhat the weight of his accusations. But circumstantially, at least, he presents a good case supporting his conclusions.

Whatever the eventual outcome of this controversy, it’s clear that Harper Lee was at best peripherally involved in the final decision to publish “Watchman.”

It’s likely that over time, most readers, critics and academics will forget Harper Lee’s second novel in the way that most readers and scholars have largely dismissed Hemingway’s dubious (and also posthumous) “Islands in the Stream.”

But given the iconic, racially progressive status that’s been long accorded the quietly inspiring character of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a deeply moving story of American justice and injustice, will long remain an enduringly great American novel for which its author will always be justly revered.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17