Harper Lee, who has died aged 89, was the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Her story of race relations and legal injustice set in the American south in the 1930s, first published in 1960, won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1961, was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1962 and went on to sell more than 40m copies worldwide. It has never been out of print and is perhaps the most widely loved American novel of the past half-century. The book was seen by many as saying something good, something important about America itself.
The story Lee wanted to tell, which took her more than seven years to complete, was about a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman in a small town in south-western Alabama, which Lee named Maycomb. It was loosely based on a case in 1933 of a black man in her home town of Monroeville who was convicted of rape. A death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and the defendant died in 1937. Lee also drew upon the infamous Scottsboro case of 1931 in which nine black teenagers were accused of the rape of two white girls. At the time, there were still Scottsboro defendants under sentence of death (the last of them was pardoned by the Alabama governor, George Wallace, in 1976).
Lee was writing in the aftermath of the 1954 supreme court ruling in Brown v Board of Education which ended legal segregation in public schools in the US. It was a time of growing racial tension in Alabama. In 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery for refusing to sit at the back of a bus, and the ensuing bus boycott grabbed the attention of the world. A year later, the home of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr was bombed, and there was rioting in Tuscaloosa when a black woman tried to enrol at the University of Alabama. To Kill a Mockingbird rode high on the New York Times bestseller lists while white students at the University of Mississippi rioted to prevent integration, and a line of jeering white protesters tried to stop Charlayne Hunter from attending the University of Georgia.
Central to Lee’s message of hope and reconciliation was the figure of Atticus Finch, an idealised tribute to her father, Amasa, a lawyer, who spoke to American ideals, conservatively articulated. He was memorably played by Gregory Peck in the film. The novel also required some rearrangement of Lee’s family life. Her unsympathetic mother disappeared, leaving Finch a widower. Various older siblings are dispatched, to be replaced by Jem, a sensitive older brother and perfect foil for the novel’s heroine, Scout. Filled with the spirit of the emerging civil rights movement, Jem is restless for change and sickened at the slow pace of progress.
Amasa had played a role in commuting the death sentence in the 1933 case. It was his first and last criminal case. But he was no liberal in matters of race relations – nor, as proprietor-editor of the local weekly newspaper, the Monroe Journal, could he afford to be. Though the Ku Klux Klan was active across Alabama, and racial intimidation was common, it is part of Lee’s fairy-story of race relations in the south that in the novel, the Klan is faced down easily and relations between black and white people are still largely courteous, agitated only by rural and lower-class whites. In fact, the Methodist church in Alabama was only dragged, reluctantly, out of its segregationist stance in the 1950s, and then it was Amasa’s daughter Alice who took a prominent role in the church’s turn towards racial justice.
Within Lee’s fable there was a didactic novel and a Sunday-school lesson in the ways of Alabama injustice and the need for tolerance. And there was a sly, sharply etched satire of local mores. Going to church was Maycomb’s “principal recreation”. At a missionary tea party, where “fragrant ladies rocked slowly, fanned gently, and drank cool water”, Mrs Merriweather complains of her black house servant Sophy, but out of Christian kindness decides to keep her on at $1.25 a week.
Lee remained true to the book’s underlying liberal values, though its message of hope was already something of an anachronism in the 1960s. Despite its popularity, To Kill a Mockingbird has been targeted repeatedly for exclusion from public-school libraries. African-American parents in Oklahoma objected to the use of the word “nigger” and forced the school board to remove the book from reading lists. A parent in Alabama objected to the use of “damn”; another complained at the word “piss”. In Hanover county, Virginia, it joined The Wizard of Oz and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm on a list of banned books.
There is an easy use in the novel of what Americans call the N-word. “Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common,” remarks Atticus. But almost everyone does, from the silly “nigger-talk” which the black cook Calpurnia deplores, to the “nigger” snowman built by the children. But what Scout learns about hatred is an education in itself. The book came under further attack in the wake of the publicity storm that accompanied its 50th anniversary. The Wall Street Journal weighed in with a dismissal of its “bloodless liberal humanism”. And in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell went further with a denunciation of the “Jim Crow liberalism” of Finch. As with the recent editing of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a cleansed and inoffensive edition of To Kill a Mockingbird seems inevitable.
The publication in 2015 of Go Set a Watchman, marketed as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, made Lee briefly the most widely discussed writer in the English-speaking world. Sales of more than 1.1m copies were reported in the US in the first week after publication, although reviews were decidedly mixed. Philip Hensher called it “an interesting document and a pretty bad novel”.
Nelle Harper Lee (Nelle was Ellen, the name of her maternal grandmother, spelled backwards), the youngest of four children, was born and grew up in Monroeville, a town of fewer than 3,000 souls. It was a two-hour drive to reach the next town. The streets were unpaved and there were few cars and no traffic lights. Monroeville in Lee’s childhood was racially segregated and Monroe county was “dry”, though bootleggers passed by now and then.
Lee told the legal and racial narrative of To Kill a Mockingbird through the eyes of a sissified little boy, Dill, who spoke in a high-pitched voice and dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Scout, a barefoot tomboy with short hair who wore dungarees and was always up for a fight with annoying and condescending boys. He was a “little chicken-breasted runt”. She was “Miss Frippy-britches”. They were inseparable. Everyone assumed they were going to marry. Dill was based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Persons, who changed his name to Capote when his mother remarried, and Scout was Lee.
The relationship between Dill and Scout is one of the most charming in American fiction. Capote and Lee were next-door neighbours on South Alabama Avenue, a block south of Courthouse Square in Monroeville. Their friendship was based on loneliness and mutual regard. Lee, who was a model for the tomboyish Idabel in Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was two years older than him. The bookish Lee household was sober with Methodist piety. Lee’s mother, Fanny, played classical music on the piano, tended her flowers, and had little time for the turbulent world of her youngest daughter.
The only book in the Faulk household next door, where Truman lived with relations, was the Bible. Little Truman had been summarily dumped in Monroeville when his mother walked out and headed north to New York. His father, Arch, was a part-time bootlegger who brought cases of bourbon on his occasional visits. The Faulk household consisted of four unmarried siblings, assorted children, a black servant named Callie, and a treehouse where Lee and Capote took turns writing stories on an old Underwood typewriter.
Lee got out of Monroeville as soon as she decently could. She followed Alice to Huntingdon, a private Methodist college for women in Montgomery. She stuck it out for a year, then in 1946 transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she studied literature, history, journalism and law. The university was renowned for its dedication to football, and while there Lee wrote satirical articles in an undergraduate magazine and belonged to the Chi Omega fraternity.
She enrolled in the law school of the University of Alabama in 1947. There were no more than a dozen women among the 100 entrants, and Lee, who usually dressed down (no make-up, her hair pulled back behind her ears, wearing a loose jumper, a skirt and loafers) made no friends and was thoroughly disengaged. None of her contemporaries at the law school, interviewed years later, could remember her. Her father, sensing that his daughter was losing interest in the law, encouraged her to take up a place on an overseas exchange programme.
Lee is said to have spent the next academic year at Oxford. Some sources suggest that she held a Fulbright scholarship, but the Fulbright Commission has no record of it, and Oxford has no record of Lee ever matriculating. Her time there was spent somewhat more prosaically in an extramural studies summer programme devoted to 20th-century Europe.
She returned to Tuscaloosa for her second year at law school but left in 1949 without taking a degree. By late 1950 she had settled in New York and worked in a series of low-paid jobs (bookstore clerk, airline reservation clerk) while beginning to write. After several years of frustration, a friend of Capote’s, Michael Brown, gave Lee a bumper Christmas present – enough money to give up her job and focus on writing full time. Brown also steered her towards an agent, Maurice Crain. She wrote and rewrote short stories, but Crain suggested she write a novel. He liked the first draft, titled Go Set a Watchman, but advised a different title; Atticus might be better.
Lee was already at work on a second novel when the manuscript of Atticus was sent to the publishers JB Lippincott, where the editor Tay Hohoff liked it, but thought extensive revisions were needed. Lee complied and received a contract from Lippincott with an advance of several thousand dollars. She had not at that point published anything. Hohoff agreed with Lee that To Kill a Mockingbird was a better title. Disliking the near-universal tendency to pronounce her name Nelle as “Nellie”, Lee decided to publish under the name Harper Lee. When it was finally published, in July 1960, it was marketed and reviewed as a trade book for adults but went on to sell an astonishing 500,000 copies in the year after publication.
Monroeville was “dizzy with excitement” over the book. Lee denied the story had anything to do with the town, and returned to New York. As her celebrity grew with the award of a Pulitzer, Monroeville warmed to the community’s most celebrated daughter. There was much gossip about the real identities of the novel’s characters.
These days in Monroeville, few traces of Lee’s world remain. There is an ice-cream shop where the family home once stood. The large, rambling building next door where Capote lived is a rubble-filled lot. Boo Radley’s oak has been unsentimentally cut down. The courthouse where Finch defended Robinson was saved from demolition in the 1960s, and is now a museum of Lee and Capote memorabilia. Each summer a theatrical adaptation of Lee’s novel is performed by amateur actors on the courthouse lawn, moving indoors for the trial scene. The jury is drawn from local white men.
For decades, Lee maintained a public silence. “I am still alive, though very quiet,” she wrote in 1995. In a forthright and brief refusal to provide an introduction to the 35th anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, she affirmed her commitment to the novel – and to her privacy.
A hapless reporter for a British newspaper presented Lee with a box of chocolates in the hope of turning polite gratitude into an interview. “Thank you so much,” Lee replied. “You are most kind. We’re just going to feed the ducks but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.” She gave no interviews, and was a master of the polite southern ways of saying no, though she attended Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966 and received an honorary degree at the University of Alabama in 1990, saying nothing and smiling to the warm applause of the assembled community. Receiving a literary award in Los Angeles in 2005, presented by Brock Peters, the actor who played Robinson in the movie, an elderly woman with short white hair and thick square glasses leaned towards the microphone and said: “Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.” And then sat down.
Virtually no one knew what Lee looked like. The invitation to Los Angeles had come from Peck’s widow, Veronique. While working on location in Monroeville during the shooting of Robert Mulligan’s film, the Pecks had become close friends with Lee, a friendship that endured. She gave Peck her father’s watch as a thank you for his Oscar-winning performance as Finch. The movie pleased Lee deeply: “I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made.”
Lee played golf, lived in New York City and spent part of every winter in Monroeville with Alice, who had joined their father’s legal practice. She moved back to Monroeville in 2005, lived briefly with her sister, and when her health deteriorated after a stroke in 2007, she moved into sheltered accommodation. In 2013 she sued her literary agent for allegedly duping her into assigning him the copyright of To Kill a Mockingbird. The following year she agreed that it could be issued as an ebook.
Bennett Miller’s 2005 biographical film Capote triggered off a fresh flurry of interest in Lee. In 1959, after a particularly brutal multiple murder at a farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas, Lee had accompanied Capote when he visited the town to investigate the crime. He played down her role, referring to Lee as his “assistant researchist”, but she undoubtedly enabled Capote to win the confidence of midwesterners made uneasy by his mannered cosmopolitanism. A childhood in rural Alabama made her comfortable with people who owned guns, drove pick-ups and did not read The New Yorker.
On the first trip to Kansas, with a murderer still at loose in the community, Capote asked Lee to get a gun permit, thinking she might also be his armed guard. But the 150 pages of notes she compiled on the murders inclined her to a darker and more nuanced picture of the lives of the four victims, all members of the Clutter family. They were certainly the victims of an atrocious crime, but for Capote, any complication of their victimhood was an unwanted distraction. As played by Catherine Keener in the film, Lee was a friend, but also a truth-teller. Subtle details in Dan Futterman’s screenplay reveal Capote’s lies and self-deception and Lee’s cool-eyed honesty. “I did everything I could,” Capote (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) gasped, regretting that he failed to save the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, from hanging. “The fact is,” Lee replied, “you didn’t want to.”
Lee did not want to have anything to do with Miller’s movie and declined to meet Keener. But she contacted the actor after it was released to say how much she had enjoyed the film and admired Keener’s and Hoffman’s performances.
After Alice died in 2014, Tonja B Carter, who had worked for the family law firm in Monroeville, assumed responsibility for Lee’s affairs. She pursued Lee’s interests with vigour, suing the town museum for infringing copyright on the sale of Mockingbird-branded merchandise. It was Carter who, three years after the Watchman manuscript had been identified by a Christie’s appraiser in a safe deposit box in Monroeville, arranged for its publication by HarperCollins.
To Kill a Mockingbird has largely retained its place in the affections of readers, especially younger ones, and their parents – all the more remarkable in that it is a book that takes the side of tolerance: “Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” “Sir?” “Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” At the novel’s moral heart, there is a small-town southern lawyer who wanted to show his children that the man with real courage was not a man with a gun in his hand. Interesting stuff for a popular novel in America. That Atticus Finch appears as a segregationist and a hypocrite in Go Set a Watchman challenged many readers’ preference for a simpler and more virtuous America. Lee understood that virtue is not simple.
• Nelle Harper Lee, novelist, born 28 April 1926; died c19 February 2016