by Adriana Wells
To Kill a Mockingbird is a book that maintained the number one spot of the NY Times bestseller list for 88 weeks straight, won a Pulitzer Prize, inspired a film that a PluggedIn critic called, “one of the most powerful arguments against racism ever put on screen”, will be adapted into a Broadway production, and is considered a required read for many high schools across the nation.
Harper Lee, the author of the book that became considered a classic the year it was written, died February 19, 2016, at the age of 89.
Lee, a tomboy in her childhood, lived in Monroeville, Alabama, as the youngest of four children. Her father was a lawyer and her mother is said to have suffered from bipolar disorder.
Truman Capote, the well-known author of several works, was one of Lee’s closest childhood companions.
Lee graduated from high school in 1944, and pursued her interest in writing into college. She attended an all-girls school called Huntingdon College, located in Montgomery. Later on, she transferred to the University of Alabama, where she wrote for the school’s newspaper and humor magazine.
She soon left the university for Oxford, where she began to study law, but was unhappy. Lee soon dropped out of Oxford and left for New York to continue her writing career.
During her time in New York, she met Michael Martin Brown, a Broadway composer, and his wife, Joy. The friendship between the three was strong, and Lee was gifted with the Brown’s support for a year in order for her to fully devote herself to writing. They even found an agent, Maurice Crane, for her.
During her time in New York, Lee also reunited with Truman Capote, who played a large role in her career as an aspiring writer. Together, they worked on an article that would come to be known as Capote’s nonfiction piece In Cold Blood.
To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960 by HarperCollins. The story follows the lives of Scout Finch and her father, Atticus, a lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. The characters are not unlike Lee and other figures from her childhood.
“All I want is to be the Jane Austen of south Alabama,” Lee said in an interview with The Bluegrass Special.
Two years later, the film adaptation of the book was released, receiving eight Academy Award nominations and won three awards, one of which went to Gregory Peck for his portrayal of Atticus.
In her later years, Lee became increasingly reclusive, and devoted her time to writing other novels in Alabama and in New York. She was reportedly working on a nonfiction piece called The Reverend, which was never published. Before To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Scout was originally meant to be twenty years old rather than the child she was. This piece was to be called Go Set a Watchman, but was rejected by a publisher, and was thought to be lost.
Lee’s lawyer recovered Go Set a Watchman and resubmitted it to HarperCollins publishing company. In 2015, it was announced that the novel would be published later that year.
The book takes place in the events following To Kill a Mockingbird, during which Scout is twenty-six years old. However, the novel brought fans of Lee’s work to question who Atticus Finch really was, when his opinions toward black people were portrayed in a much more negative way.
“The depiction of Atticus in ‘Watchman’ makes for disturbing reading, and for ‘Mockingbird’ fans, it’s especially disorienting,” Michiko Kakutani said in a NY Times review.
Despite the controversy it sparked, Lee was happy with her most recent novel.
Lee’s health had been steadily declining over the past few years, until her peaceful death in her hometown on February 19, 2016.
John Lewis said on Twitter, “One of the great writers of all time, Harper Lee laid bare the soul of America and her work will continue to educate for generations.”