UPDATE with President Obama’s reaction: Harper Lee, an unknown writer from Alabama whose story about racial injustice in the American South would become one of the most acclaimed novels and then movies of all time, has died. The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird was 89. Her death was confirmed by HarperCollins, her publisher, and by the mayor of her hometown of Monroeville, AL.
“When Harper Lee sat down to write To Kill a Mockingbird, she wasn’t seeking awards or fame. She was a country girl who just wanted to tell an honest story about life as she saw it,” President Obama said this afternoon on Facebook. “But what that one story did, more powerfully than one hundred speeches possibly could, was change the way we saw each other, and then the way we saw ourselves. Through the uncorrupted eyes of a child, she showed us the beautiful complexity of our common humanity, and the importance of striving for justice in our own lives, our communities, and our country.
“Ms. Lee changed America for the better. And there is no higher tribute we can offer her than to keep telling this timeless American story – to our students, to our neighbors, and to our children – and to constantly try, in our own lives, to finally see each other.”
Selma director Ava DuVernay was among the many in Hollywood who posted reactions:
Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film starred Gregory Peck in the iconic role of small-town attorney Atticus Finch; Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, the accused black man he defends; Robert Duvall as “Boo” Radley; and Mary Badham as Atticus’ daughter Scout, the story’s narrator. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three — for Peck’s performance, Horton Foote’s screenplay, and the black-and-white art direction by Alexander Golitzen, Henry Bumstead and Oliver Emert.
Never out of print, To Kill A Mockingbird along with its reclusive author were back in the news in recent months, when HarperCollins published an earlier manuscript under the title Go Set A Watchman. The early draft of Mockingbird was set 20 years after the incidents recalled by Scout, and portrayed Atticus Finch as an embittered racist. The publication prompted several controversies concerning the state of Lee’s health, her ability to consent to the publication and, perhaps most compellingly, a re-examination of a fictional character who had taken on heroic proportions in the American — indeed, the world’s — conscience as a champion of human rights and dignity.
And as recently as last month, producer Scott Rudin announced that he had commissioned Aaron Sorkin to write a new adaptation of Mockingbird, to be presented as a Broadway play during the 2017-2018 season. Rudin pointedly said that “the Atticus we do is going to be the Atticus in To Kill A Mockingbird.”
“Like millions of others, I was saddened to learn this morning of the passing of Harper Lee, one of America’s most beloved authors,” Sorkin told Deadline this morning. “I’m honored to have the opportunity to adapt her seminal novel for the stage.”
Like J.D. Salinger, another writer who came of age in the 1950s and assiduously shunned the spotlight (as Salinger did after the publication of The Catcher In The Rye), Nelle Harper Lee lived a quiet life far away from publishing hotspots like New York.
“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird,” she 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.”
Encouragement she certainly got, but no follow-up to her debut was in the offing. Unlike Salinger, who continued to publish, Lee’s promise of new work was unfulfilled across more than five decades. She returned to Monroeville after a flirtation with city life in New York that had one noteworthy consequence: Her friendship with childhood playmate Truman Capote grew even stronger.
Partly to escape the drudgery as Mockingbird went through rewrites before publication, Lee accepted Capote’s invitation to accompany her on the research mission for what would become his magnum opus, In Cold Blood. Although the friendship later cooled and even soured, they were for a time a rather unconventional literary duo: he a gay extrovert whose gift for drawing unlikely confessions out of people placed him at the center of Manhattan society (until he became a pariah with the same crowd following the publication of La Cote Basque 1965, the thinly veiled portrait of his circle). She was the quiet observer, playing the amanuensis, taking detailed notes while disappearing into the background (Lee was played, memorably, by Catherine Keener in Capote, Bennett Miller’s 2005 film about the writing of In Cold Blood, with an Oscar-winning performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role. Sandra Bullock played her the following year in the similar Infamous).
Then in February 2015, Harper announced it would publish what was thought to have been a long-lost manuscript titled Go Set A Watchman, discovered by her lawyer Tonja B. Carter, apparently attached to a manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird. It told the story of Atticus and Scout two decades after the events described in Mockingbird and seemed to reflect Lee’s struggles to find her voice as a writer while living in New York. The manuscript included several scenes in which Atticus gives voice to views sharply different from the man of conscience portrayed in Mockingbird.
Although Watchman was a bestseller and had an initial, sold-out printing of 2 million copies, it became better known for the debate it inspired about Finch — as if he had been a real-life character — than for the quality of the writing.
“The depiction of Atticus in Watchman makes for disturbing reading, and for Mockingbird fans, it’s especially disorienting,” Michio Kakutani understated in her New York Times review of the book. “Scout is shocked to find, during her trip home, that her beloved father, who taught her everything she knows about fairness and compassion, has been affiliating with raving anti-integrationist, anti-black crazies, and the reader shares her horror and confusion.”