The legendary and reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, has died at 89.
While her life will long be celebrated, the last years of the To Kill a Mockingbird author’s life were cloaked in controversy, and rumor has it that Lee was being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous caretaker. That said, it would seem that the writer and To Kill a Mockingbird itself has engendered many memories for generations of fans.
Her lawyer, according to New York Times, was eyed with suspicion when it came to the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Some suspected that Lee may not have been mentally competent enough to approve letting the release of Go Set a Watchman — the purported sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird — go forward.
“Many critics, as well as friends of Ms. Lee, found the timing and the rediscovery story suspicious, and openly questioned whether Ms. Lee, who was shielded from the press by Ms. (Tonja) Carter, was mentally competent to approve its publication,” the New York Times story stated.
The manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was apparently discovered by Carter by accident. The publishers reported that Carter found the manuscript attached to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Time reported in March 2015, a few months before the release of Go Set a Watchman, that the To Kill a Mockingbird author was living in an assisted living facility in Monroeville, Alabama, the town she had lived in since the 1960s. She had long been under the care of her older sister, Alice, until her sister’s death at 103 in late 2014. Alice Lee had been her sister’s protector, and reporters would generally get no further than her when attempting to interview the reclusive and elusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, in addition to the accolades the film received when it came out a year after its publication. IMDb reports that To Kill a Mockingbird was considered Gregory Peck’s favorite film, and that Harper Lee was so moved by Peck’s performance and by the fact that he reminded her of her dearly departed father A.C. Lee, who was also a lawyer like Atticus, that she gave him her father’s pocket watch when the film wrapped.
According to Washington Post, Alice Lee told reporters who were eager to learn why the To Kill a Mockingbird author did not want to take on another novel, “When you have hit the pinnacle, how would you feel about writing more? Would you feel like you’re competing with yourself?”
By May 2013, Harper Lee had brought suit against her literary agent Samuel Pinkus, claiming he had scammed her into thinking she should sign off on her copyright to his literary company after a 2007 stroke left her with diminished hearing and eyesight. Certainly, this would be an ignominious slight against such a literary giant, and for someone who had such a small circle of intimates, the To Kill a Mockingbird author was not happy about this turn of events.
Lee’s death leaves few who remain still attached to the legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird the novel and the film. Gregory Peck, who played Atticus, died in 2003, while Brock Peters, who portrayed Tom Robinson, died two years later. John Megna (Dill) died in 1995 at 42, Alice Ghostley (Stephanie Crawford) died in September 2007, and Mary Badham and Phillip Alford, Scout and Jem, respectively, both retired from acting, with Badham frequently discussing the social justice learnings that can be gleaned from the novel, according to the New York Post.
Badham’s fondness for To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus, though, never faltered. While she was relieved she did not win the Academy Award for playing Scout, she was delighted that Gregory Peck snagged top honors for his portrayal of Atticus.
Now that Lee has died, though, there are few of the original players left from To Kill a Mockingbird or her family to help continue her legacy and that of the time-honored book. However, one need only look to the critical thought To Kill a Mockingbird still generates today in English classes across the country to realize that although the creator of Jem, Scout, and, of course, Atticus may be gone, the lessons gained from such a powerful novel (as well as the only other novel published by Lee, Go Set a Watchman) will doubtless continue to resonate.
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