'Mockingbird' author Harper Lee dies at age 89
Harper Lee in 2007. AP Photo/Rob Carr
Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89.
Lee received a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for Mockingbird’s tale of a noble lawyer, Atticus Finch, defending a black man accused of raping a white woman, as told through the eyes of the lawyer’s daughter, Scout. The book sold more than 40 million copies and its story was later portrayed in a film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama, and lived the last years of her life there in a nursing home close to the house where she grew up. Her father was a lawyer and one of her childhood friends was Truman Capote. She attended the University of Alabama and decided to become a writer.
Lee published a second book, Go Set a Watchman, in July that portrays Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch as a racist. The book is set in the 1950s, two decades after Mockingbird story. The controversy over Lee’s decision to publish the book led to two probes that found she was apparently aware of the publishing deal and there had been no abuse or neglect.
Though Watchman was a sequel, it was written before Mockingbird. When Lee first submitted it to editors in the 1950s, they rejected the book and asked her to instead write a book from the point of view of one of its characters, Scout, as a child. She followed their advice, and To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960.
The ABA’s policy-making House of Delegates unanimously passed a resolution in 2010 acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the publication of Mockingbird. A report supporting the recommendation said the influence of the book and its hero, Atticus Finch, had a remarkable influence on lawyers. “Atticus Finch encourages us to supplant our cynicism and malaise with integrity and empathy,” the report said. “We, as a profession, are better because of Atticus Finch.”
The ABA Journal and the University of Alabama School of Law have co-sponsored the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction since 2011. The most recent winner, The Secret of Magic, portrays an African-American attorney working for Thurgood Marshall’s Legal Defense Fund in the 1940s who investigates the death of a black veteran.
ABA President Paulette Brown issued a statement expressing sympathy to Lee’s family and friends. “For more than a half a century, Americans—lawyers and nonlawyers alike—drew delight and inspiration from Ms. Lee’s book, considered one of the greatest works of legal fiction,” Brown said. “Her lead character, Atticus Finch, remains the embodiment of the moral American lawyer and the good work that lawyers do. Although not a lawyer, her influence on the perception of the profession is profound.”
“Annually since 2011, our ABA Journal has partnered with the University of Alabama School of Law to award the Harper Lee Prize to the novel that best exemplifies the role of lawyers in society. We are honored that in a small way this prize can help to further the memory and the great work of Ms. Lee.”
The University of Alabama also released a statement. “The University of Alabama extends its sympathy to Nelle Harper Lee’s family and friends and the millions of readers of To Kill a Mockingbird,” the statement said. “Miss Lee will continue to serve as an inspiration for many generations of writers, and we proudly claim her as one of our own.”