Acclaimed author Harper Lee is dead at 89, reports the Guardian this morning. Lee spent the last few years in a nursing home less than a mile from her childhood home in Monroeville, Alabama, which served as the inspiration for the fictional city of Maycomb, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the 50 years since Mockingbird, Lee has published only one other novel, the controversial Go Set a Watchman, which some fans claim is simply an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the most influential novels of the 20th century and a defining piece of American literature. Released during the height of racial tensions in the United States, the novel highlighted the injustice that many black Americans faced during the era. Mockingbird was published in 1960, and by 1962, it was adapted into a wildly successful motion picture starring Gregory Peck. Harper Lee was an instant celebrity, a role she never felt comfortable with. She found fame to be oppressive and withdrew from the spotlight, publishing only a handful of articles over the course of her career.
“I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird’, I was hoping for a quick merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but, at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it well enough to give me encouragement,” Harper Lee said during a radio interview in 1964.
Nevertheless, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and in some ways, she found the sudden fame to be more frightening than the “merciful death” she hoped reviewers would give her.
Lee never published another novel until February 2015, when her publisher, HarperCollins, announced that it planned to release a manuscript discovered in one of Harper Lee’s safe deposit boxes. The novel was poorly received despite nearly two million pre-orders.
To Kill a Mocking Bird was an instant and enduring success, selling over 10 million copies by the 1970s. As of 1988, it was being taught in 74 percent of American grade schools, reports the New York Times.
Although Harper Lee only ever published two novels, she was a prominent figure in the American literature scene. Just prior to the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, she accompanied childhood friend Truman Capote to Kansas, where he was doing research for his own book In Cold Blood, which chronicled the brutal murder of a Kansas family.
Harper Lee was an integral part of Capote’s team, although he later tended to downplay her role. Lee’s down-to-earth manner opened doors for him and warmed the simple Kansas townsfolk to Capote’s sometimes outlandish and flamboyant manner.
After the success of Mockingbird, Lee slowly withdrew and become something of a literary recluse. She teased reporters with hints of her next novel into the mid-1960s, but after the next novel never came, she withdrew from the public eye, giving only the occasional interview or comment. She published an open letter in 2006 in Oprah’s O Magazine.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. Harper Lee reportedly pursued numerous different novel ideas throughout the decades, taking an interest in true crime stories, expressing a desire to become “the Jane Austen of South Alabama” with grand plans for stories set in the Southern Gothic genre. She hoped to explore plantations and tell the story of an Alabama serial killer, but none of her ideas ever came to fruition.
Still, Harper Lee joins a rich tradition of American authors who have written a single influential, definitive work and let the work speak for itself.
[Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]