Nelle Harper Lee, whose novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a classroom staple and American classic, has died at 89, according to multiple news sources. To Kill a Mockingbird’s iconic coming-of-age narrative, mixing the horror of a racist justice system with a degree of youthful sentimentality, has endeared it to several decades of readers, teachers — and even those critics who admit its power to enchant and awaken while remaining wary of its simple moral scheme.
Lee’s failing health in recent years, and her famous reclusiveness, were both tied to considerable controversy around last year’s release of her pre-Mockingbird manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, as a hardcover novel — which many worried was being made into a cash cow while its author was infirm and unable to fully consent.
Watchman was a bestseller and received mixed reviews, with its description of crusading lawyer Atticus Finch (based on her father Amasa Coleman Lee) as a conformist Southern racist, casting a dark shadow over one of America’s favorite literary characters but also deepening our understanding of Mockingbird. Yet there was also praise for Lee’s writing: “I’d offer that Lee’s greatest gift — beyond her warmly voluminous yet precise diction — is her ability to paint with time in a manner available only to America’s ‘regional’ writers, a line extending from Faulkner to Marilynne Robinson,” Flavorwire’s Jonathon Sturgeon wrote of Watchman, once it saw the light of day. But, he added, “Watchman questions the sanctity of the white savior at the risk of humanizing the bigot.”
Lee’s talents also contributed to the history of American letters when she helped Monroeville, Alabama’s other famous literary denizen, Truman Capote, ingratiate himself with the citizens of Holcomb, Kansas, during his research for magnum opus In Cold Blood. Both Sandra Bullock and Catherine Keener portrayed Lee in that capacity in dueling Capote biopics, and in a sense this was fitting: despite her very private lifestyle, Lee long ago became a public character in her own right, captivating Americans with the legacy of one single book.