American novelist Harper Lee, famous for her masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird and for shunning the fame it brought her, has died aged 89, officials in her hometown said Friday.
A spokeswoman for Monroeville, Alabama, where Lee was born and spent her final years living in seclusion, confirmed local media reports of her death, saying: “She did pass away.”
Lee’s 1960 novel, which earned her a Pulitzer Prize, came to define racial injustice in the Depression-era South and became standard reading in classrooms across the world. Mockingbird tells the story of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman and the courageous lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defies his community to defend him. It remains a seminal work of 20th century American literature and Finch one of the best-loved characters in American culture.
Drawn from Lee’s experiences as a child, the novel sold 30 million copies and won huge critical acclaim for Lee, thrusting her into the limelight amid an avalanche of publicity. Her fame was sealed when the novel was adapted into a Hollywood film that won three Academy Awards in 1963, including an Oscar for leading man Gregory Peck.
In one rare insight, Lee admitted in 1964 she had been completely caught off guard by being catapulted into the nation’s consciousness by her novel. “I hoped for a little, but I got rather a whole lot and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected,” she said.
For decades after that she lived out of the public eye, claiming to have said all she wanted to say in Mockingbird and vowing never to publish another book. But in 2015, she upended the literary world by publishing the unedited manuscript of Go Set a Watchman a first novel written in the 1950s and essentially the first draft of Mockingbird.
The manuscript was an instant bestseller but its release sparked torrid speculation that she was not of sound mind and was mauled by critics who suggested she had tarnished her reputation.
Born Nelle Harper Lee in April 1926, she was the youngest of four children. Her father was also a lawyer and a direct descendant of Civil War general Robert E. Lee. She counted author Truman Capote among her childhood friends, and worked as an assistant on his novel In Cold Blood, which examined a multiple killing in Kansas, and was dedicated to Lee.
A precocious child, Lee learned to read early and had devoured all kinds of literature by the time she started school. In a letter to talk show host Oprah Winfrey in May 2006, Lee told how growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930s in a remote village meant the few available books provided the only entertainment, turning reading into a lifelong passion.