When Lee’s original and quite different version of that classic story, Go Set a Watchman, was finally published last year, I bought and read it, because I’d so enjoyed the previous book. And though some people felt cheated by this immature work, I came away appreciating Watchman for the familiarity of its voice. At the time, though, I recall there was talk of Lee, in her 89th year, not being in good health. Therefore, today’s news of her demise seems unsurprising.
As The New York Times reports:
Harper Lee, whose first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, about racial injustice in a small Alabama town, sold more than 40 million copies and became one of the most beloved and most taught works of fiction ever written by an American, died on Friday in Monroeville, Ala., where she lived. She was 89.National Public Radio’s Lynn Neary adds that
Hank Conner, a nephew of Ms. Lee’s, said that she died in her sleep at the Meadows, an assisted living facility.
The instant success of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the next year, turned Ms. Lee into a literary celebrity, a role she found oppressive and never learned to accept.
“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird,” Ms. Lee told a radio interviewer in 1964. “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers, but, at the same time I sort of hoped someone would like it well enough to give me encouragement.”
The book depicts the strivings of a small-town Alabama lawyer, Atticus Finch, on behalf of Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping a white woman, and it casts the events through the lens of Finch’s precocious daughter, Scout. Despite its relative brevity, the book bears considerable weight, both in the gravity of its themes and the care with which it treats them.It may have been the 1962 big-screen adaptation, starring Gregory Peck, that brought Lee’s (still sometimes controversial) novel much of its early renown, but it’s the story itself that has kept To Kill a Mockingbird popular. As the blog FiveThirtyEight notes, “In 2012, the Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, surveyed 484 high school English teachers about which books they assigned. According to the group’s study, Mockingbird was taught by more ninth- and 10th-grade teachers—35 percent of them—than any other book of fiction listed. It also tops most works in other categories, including poetry and plays. Mockingbird beats the most-taught works of Mark Twain, Shakespeare or John Steinbeck. The only reading material that topped it was Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which was taught by 38 percent of teachers in those grades.”
Perhaps, then, it should be no surprise that Lee and her editor, Tay Hohoff, weren’t exactly expecting this book to fly off store shelves.
Hohoff “cautioned her that a book with racism at its center involving a rape trial was not a thing in 1960 to make people run to the bookstores for,” says Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. “She counselled her client and said, ‘If we sell 2,500 copies and break even, you should be proud.’”
You already know this twist: Turns out they were flat wrong.
Lee’s death today is unlikely to change that triumphal record.
READ MORE: “Legendary Author Harper Lee Dies at Age 89,” by Nick Ostdick (Books Tell You Why); “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird Is a Perfectly Built Novel, Despite Its Flaws,” by Todd VanDerWerff (Vox); “How Harper Lee Lost Her Voice,” by Sarah Weinman (The New Republic); “Harper Lee Tribute (1926-2016): From To Kill a Mockingbird to Go Set a Watchman” (Abebooks); “Obama on Harper Lee: ‘She Changed America for the Better,’” by Tierney Sneed (Talking Points Memo); “Godspeed Harper Lee,” by Terence Towles Canote (A Shroud of Thoughts).