Best selling American novelist Harper Lee has died at the age of 89. Lee was born in Monroeville in 1926 And was the youngest of the four children born to lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Finch Lee. She grew under the stresses of segregation and as a child shared summers with another aspiring writer, Truman Capote, who annually came to stay in the house next door to hers. She studied at the University of Alabama from 1945 to 1949 before moving to New York, where she began writing fiction in her spare time. Lee eventually signed with an agent in 1956. Capote later invited her to accompany him to Holcomb, Kansas, to help him research his groundbreaking 1966 crime book In Cold Blood.
Capote also inspired the figure of the young boy Dill in Harper Lee’s classic 1961 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, with his friend the first-person narrator Scout clearly modelled on the childhood Lee herself. Her father acted as the template for small town lawyer Atticus Finch who displays resolute courtroom dignity as he struggles to represent and save the life of a black resident named Robinson who is accused of raping a white woman by a racist mob. This provides the novel’s ethical backbone. To Kill a Mockingbird went on to become a national institution and the defining text on the racial troubles of the American Deep South, where Lee’s home state of Alabama, was the epicenter of many violent upheavals over civil rights. The publication of Mockingbird, had a profound effect on white residents of the state and the power of the novel was able to shift the ingrained assumptions of white Alabamans and took the politics of the civil rights era and made them human. She showed people that this was about their neighbors, their friends, someone they knew, not just about the issues.
In 2014 it was revealed that a second novel had been discovered which was published as Go Set a Watchman in July 2015. It was originally written in the mid-1950s and is set some twenty years after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, and is written from the point of view of an adult Scout (Jean Louise) Finch who travels from New York to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her father, Atticus Finch, And the title alludes to Scout’s view of her father, Atticus Finch, as the moral compass (“watchman”) of Maycomb. The novel sees Scout “forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood. Go Set a Watchman has since become a global success winning many awards.
In recent years Lee’s health had declined and she lived for several years in a nursing home less than a mile from the house in which she had grown up in Monroeville, Alabama – the setting for the fictional Maycomb of her famous bestselling 1961bookTo Kill a Mockingbird, which became a best seller and sold more than 40 million copies around the world and earned her a Pulitzer prize. Lee was also awarded the presidential medal of freedom in 2007 by George Bush. She will be sadly missed.