Harper Lee, who has died aged 89, was the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Her story of race relations and injustice set in the American south in the 1930s, first published in 1960, won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1961, was filmed in 1962 and went on to sell more than 40 million copies worldwide. It has never been out of print and is perhaps the most widely loved American novel of the past half-century.
The story Lee wanted to tell, which took her more than seven years to complete, was about a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman in a small town in Alabama which she named Maycomb. It was loosely based on a case in 1933 of a black man in her home town of Monroeville who was convicted of rape. A death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and the defendant died in 1937.
Lee was writing in the aftermath of the 1954 supreme court ruling in Brown v Board of Education, which ended legal segregation in public schools. It was a time of racial tension in Alabama. In 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery for refusing to sit at the back of a bus. A year later, the home of Martin Luther King was bombed, and there was rioting when a black woman tried to enrol at the University of Alabama.
To Kill a Mockingbird
rode high on the
New York Times
bestseller lists while white students at the University of Mississippi rioted to prevent integration and a line of jeering white protesters tried to stop Charlayne Hunter from attending the University of Georgia.
Central to Lee's message of hope and reconciliation was the figure of Atticus Finch, an idealised tribute to her father, Amasa, a lawyer, who spoke to American ideals, conservatively articulated. He was memorably portrayed on film by Gregory Peck.
Amasa had played a role in commuting the death sentence in the 1933 trial, his first and last criminal case. But he was no liberal in matters of race relations. Though the Ku Klux Klan was active across Alabama, and racial intimidation was common, it is part of Lee's fairy-story of race relations in the south that in the novel the Klan is faced down easily and relations between black and white people are still largely courteous. In fact, the Methodist Church in Alabama was only dragged out of its segregationist stance in the 1950s, a process in which Harper Lee's sister Alice played a prominent role.
Lee remained true to the book's underlying liberal values, though its message of hope was already something of an anachronism in the 1960s. Despite its popularity, To Kill a Mockingbird has been targeted repeatedly for exclusion from school libraries. African-American parents in Oklahoma objected to the use of the word "nigger" and forced the school board to remove the book from reading lists. Other parents objected to the words "damn" and "piss".
Nelle Harper Lee, the youngest of four children, was born and grew up in Monroeville, a remote town of fewer than 3,000 souls with unpaved streets, few cars and no traffic lights. Lee told the legal and racial narrative of her novel through the eyes of an effeminate little boy, Dill, who spoke in a high-pitched voice and dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Scout, a barefoot tomboy with short hair who wore dungarees and was always up for a fight with annoying and condescending boys. Dill was based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Persons, who changed his name to
when his mother remarried, and Scout was Lee.
The bookish Lee household was sober with Methodist piety. Lee’s mother, Fanny, played classical music on the piano, tended her flowers, and had little time for the turbulent world of her youngest daughter. The only book in the Faulk household next door, where Capote lived with relatives, was the Bible.
Lee got out as soon as she could, following Alice to Huntingdon, a private Methodist college for women in Montgomery. She stuck it out for a year, then in 1946 transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, an institution best known for its dedication to football, where she studied literature, history, journalism and law.
Lee appears to have made no friends at college. None of her contemporaries, interviewed years later, could remember her. Her father, sensing that his daughter was losing interest in the law, encouraged her to take up a place on an overseas exchange programme, which she did in Oxford, enrolling in an extramural studies summer programme devoted to 20th century Europe. She returned to Tuscaloosa for her second year at law school but left in 1949 without taking a degree.
By late 1950 she had settled in New York and worked in a series of low-paid jobs while beginning to write. After some years a friend of Capote's, Michael Brown, gave her enough money to give up her job and focus on writing full-time. He also steered her towards an agent, Maurice Crain, who suggested she write a novel. He liked the first draft, then called Go Set a Watchman, but advised a different titler, Atticus.
The manuscript was sent to the publishers JB Lippincott, where the editor Tay Hohoff liked it, but thought extensive revisions were needed. In the course of these revisions the book changed its title again.
Disliking the near universal tendency to pronounce her name, Nelle, as “Nellie”, Lee decided to publish under the name Harper Lee. When it was finally published, in July 1960,
To Kill a Mockingbird
sold an astonishing 500,000 copies in its first year. Monroeville was “dizzy with excitement”.
Lee denied the story had anything to do with her home town, and quickly returned to New York. But as her celebrity grew, Monroeville warmed to the community’s most celebrated daughter and there was much gossip about the real identities of the novel’s characters.
For decades, Lee maintained a public silence. A hapless reporter for a British newspaper presented her with a box of chocolates in the hope of turning polite gratitude into an interview. “Thank you so much,” Lee replied. “You are most kind. We’re just going to feed the ducks but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.” She gave no interviews, and was a master of polite southern ways of saying no.
She did, however, forge a friendship with Gregory Peck, giving him her father’s watch as a thank you for his Oscar-winning performance as Finch. The movie pleased Lee deeply: “I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made.”
Lee played golf, lived in New York and spent part of every winter in Monroeville with Alice, now in their father’s legal practice. She moved back to the town in 2005, and when her health deteriorated after a stroke in 2007, moved into sheltered accommodation.
The publication in 2015 of
Go Set a Watchman
, marketed as a sequel to
To Kill a Mockingbird
, made Lee briefly the most widely discussed writer in the English-speaking world. The book sold more than a million copies in its first week, although reviews were decidedly mixed. Philip Hensher called it “an interesting document and a pretty bad novel”.
In 2013 she sued her literary agent for allegedly duping her into assigning him the copyright of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the following year she agreed that it could be issued as an ebook. After Alice died in 2014, Tonja B Carter, who had worked for the family law firm in Monroeville, assumed responsibility for Lee's affairs, pursuing her interests with vigour.
It was Carter who, three years after the Watchman manuscript had been identified by a Christie's appraiser in a safe deposit box in Monroeville, arranged for its publication. That Atticus Finch appears as a segregationist and a hypocrite in Go Set a Watchman challenged many readers' preference for a simpler and more virtuous America. But Lee understood that virtue is not simple.