If Harper Lee was a one-hit wonder, then she was probably the greatest one-hit wonder to have ever lived. The career writer took the world by storm with her 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which topped best-seller lists, earned her a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and assured her a permanent place in nationwide English curricula for the rest of eternity. In the years following her breakout novel’s release, she assisted her childhood friend Truman Capote in the research for his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, and had a bit of oversight during production of Robert Mulligan’s timeless film adaptation of Mockingbird. But she’d never regain those heights of success, or release a follow-up until a controversy-shrouded second novel appeared last year. Regardless, her one hit has still proven her to be a towering literary talent and a crucial part of the American prose fiction tradition.
Al.com, a news outlet serving the locals of Alabama, has relayed a report from Lee’s home of Monroeville that the author has died in her home. Though the cause of death remains unspecified at present, the report notes that Lee suffered a stroke in 2007. She was 89 years old at the time of her death.
Born and raised in Monroeville by politician/lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Lee (née Finch) the girl born Nelle Harper Lee was a studious pupil and eventually worked her way up to women’s college of Huntingdon College in Montgomery. Her mother’s maiden name outs these formative childhood experiences as the basis for To Kill a Mockingbird, with her gallant father a clear model for heroic defense attorney Atticus Finch, having actually defended two young black men accused of murdering a white shopkeeper. Lee headed to New York City at age 23, where she labored in obscurity before landing a literary agent and prepping what would be her magnum opus.
Reading To Kill a Mockingbird is good for a growing child, the literary equivalent of a delicious and well-balanced diet. The sentimental attachment to Lee’s most well-known work is what made last year’s release of her long-delayed second novel, Go Set a Watchman, so embattled. Lee’s health had been in decline for years by 2014, when her lawyer and agent found the Watchman manuscript in her safe deposit box. Many suspect that the publication of this manuscript, understood to be an abandoned early draft of Mockingbird, but packaged as a sequel, was a bloodless cash grab from those close to this infirm woman, incapable of making decisions on her own. It seemed rather suspicious that Lee, after having maintained for 55 years that she had no interest in publishing a novel, would suddenly change her mind while on what would turn out to be her deathbed. But even with this questionable activity marring her final years, Lee remains a treasure of American literature.
Her To Kill a Mockingbird teaches young readers to love literature, to take joy in the parsing of symbols and identification of themes. More importantly, though, it preaches empathy, compassion, understanding, and peace. It is a moral document above all else, and undoubtedly made the world a warmer and more loving place. If an author can accomplish that all in one novel, then she’s earned every right to take the rest of her life off.