Harper Lee: A brave writer who told the truth about racism

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ author was a feisty storyteller with a powerful message

This time last year news editors and literary journalists were intent on sourcing advance copies of the rejected first novel from which Harper Lee shaped her much-loved classic To Kill A Mockingbird.

However, as the news of her death on Friday causes the world to mourn the feisty Southern storyteller with a powerful political message, all of the fuss about Go Set a Watchman becomes irrelevant.

Nelle Harper Lee was 89 when she died, about two months shy of her 90th birthday, which was due to fall on April 28th.

She was the youngest of either four or five children (the facts vary) and was born to a lawyer father in 1926.


When she left her native Monroeville, Alabama, in 1949 for New York, without finishing her studies at the University of Alabama, she knew she wanted to be a writer.

While working as an airline reservations clerk she completed a book and submitted it to a publisher in 1955 when she was 29. It was rejected.

Eventually, the third of three subsequent drafts was accepted and published as To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. It would win a Pulitzer Prize.

From its publication, To Kill A Mockingbird was special. Told through the voice of Scout Finch, a little tomboy whose honesty is often at variance with the hypocrisy of small-town life, it is a novel that is beyond criticism.

Its appeal is consolidated by the narrative voice. Scout appears to encapsulate the better parts of everyone.

Even the fact that for many readers their first encounter with Lee’s story was at school does not diminish its appeal.

Scout and her elder brother Jem, although distracted by a mysterious neighbour and some strange happenings, are well aware of their father’s dignified presence not only at home but in the wider community.

Their father, Atticus Finch, the widower lawyer, is quiet yet brave. It is Atticus who sets out to defend a black man who is wrongly accused of rape in their town.

The case is lost but the point is made, devastatingly so.

Adored by his children and in his characterisation, Atticus Finch is possibly the most popular father in literature.

The sublime Gregory Peck portrayed Atticus in an Oscar-winning performance when the novel was adapted for the screen.

Lee was famously thanked by Peck when he received his Oscar, while she always thanked him for bringing Atticus to life.

In Cold Blood

Lee then accompanied her childhood friend Truman Capote as he researched the murder case in Kansas that would become his book In Cold Blood (1966).

Capote knew he needed Lee, as she had social skills he didn’t possess.

Lee never seemed to resent Capote acting as the writer in their friendship, and was unperturbed when he relegated her to his secretary during the trip.

She was confident in what she had written, something which was underlined in the foreword that she reluctantly agreed to write for a new edition of the book in 1993.

“I loathe introductions . . . Mockingbird still says what it has to say: it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”

Harper Lee had no children and never married.

She allowed her elder sister Alice, a lawyer, to monitor her business affairs.

Alice was a close friend as well as her sister and she kept the rejected first manuscript in her office for 60 years rather than offer it to an archive.

Alice Lee died in November 2014, which makes the belated publication of the first manuscript all the more suspect.

Soon after her death, rumours about a “lost” manuscript began to emerge.

However, the manuscript was never lost. Lee had shown no interest in it, while Alice Lee is believed to have felt it would reflect poorly on her sister’s reputation as the writer.

Alice also felt the racist content in the manuscript might taint their father’s memory.


Harper Lee suffered a stroke in 2007. By last year she was deaf and blind and largely bedridden.

Nevertheless, her publishers were pleased that their author was still alive and apparently happy to see her rejected earlier version published.

Despite poor reviews, Go Set A Watchman was a commercial success, capitalising on the love felt for To Kill a Mockingbird as well as good old human curiosity.

The book contains a very different Atticus, an older man who is crippled by arthritis and very much a racist.

This presentation dominated the reaction to the book, which was opportunistically presented by the publisher as Lee’s second novel.

The publisher’s approach seemed unfair to Lee and certainly disregarded the intelligence of the public.

The novel’s brazen hype also caused much irritation

The public purchased the book on publication last July – whether because of or despite the hype is down to the individual.

Lee was blunt and realistic over the years, and after initially saying she busy on another book, she eventually drifted from the public view and tended to be selective in the interviews she gave and events she attended.

It was not that she was reclusive, it was just that she was confident in having written an enduring book.

How will she be remembered? As a courageous woman from the South who told the truth about racism.

Most of all she was a grown-up who had never forgotten the sense of humour and justice, never mind the logic, we are all granted as children, yet somehow manage to lose along the way.

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times