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Harper Lee: the retiring Jane Austen of South Alabama

The instant success of "To Kill a Mockingbird", which was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the next year, turned Harper Lee into a literary celebrity, a role she found oppressive and never learned to accept.

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Author Harper Lee dead at 89

Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird, has died in Monroeville, Alabama.

"I never expected any sort of success with 'Mockingbird'," said the famed author, who died in Monroeville, Alabama, on Friday. "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 enormous success of the film version of the novel, released in 1962 with Gregory Peck in the starring role of Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, only added to Lee's fame and fanned expectations for her next novel.

Harper Lee in Washington in 2007.
Harper Lee in Washington in 2007. Photo: Getty Images

But for more than half a century, a second novel failed to turn up, and Lee gained a reputation as a literary Garbo, a recluse whose public appearances to accept an award or an honorary degree counted as important news simply because of their rarity. On such occasions she did not speak, other than to say a brief thank you.

Then, in February 2015, long after the reading public had given up on seeing anything more from Lee, her publisher, Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, dropped a bombshell. It announced plans to publish a manuscript - long thought to be lost and now resurfacing in mysterious circumstances - that Lee had submitted to her editors in 1957 under the title "Go Set a Watchman".

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The book was published in July with an initial printing of 2 million and, with enormous advance sales, immediately leapt to the top of the fiction best-seller lists, despite tepid reviews.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" was really two books in one: a sweet, often humorous portrait of small-town life in the 1930s, and a sobering tale of race relations in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the segregated court room of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', the film based on Harper Lee's novel.
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the segregated court room of 'To Kill a Mockingbird', the film based on Harper Lee's novel.  Photo: AP

Looking back on her childhood as a precocious tomboy, Scout, the narrator, evokes the sultry summers and simple pleasures of an ordinary small town in Alabama. At a time when Southern fiction inclined toward the Gothic, Lee, with a keen eye and a sharp ear for dialogue, presented "the more smiling aspects" of Southern life, to borrow a phrase from William Dean Howells.

At the same time, her stark morality tale of a righteous Southern lawyer who stands firm against racism and mob rule struck a chord with Americans, many of them becoming aware of the civil rights movement for the first time.

Harper Lee in Alabama in 2006.
Harper Lee in Alabama in 2006. Photo: New York Times

By the late 1970s "To Kill a Mockingbird" had sold nearly 10 million copies, and in 1988 the National Council of Teachers of English reported that it was being taught in 74 percent of the nation's secondary schools. A decade later, Library Journal declared it the best novel of the 20th century.

Nelle Harper Lee was born in the poky little town of Monroeville, in southern Alabama, the youngest of four children. "Nelle" was a backward spelling of her maternal grandmother's first name, and Lee dropped it when "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published, out of fear that readers would pronounce it Nellie, which she hated.

Her father, Asa Coleman Lee, was a prominent lawyer and the model for Atticus Finch, who shared his lofty sense of civic duty. Her mother, Frances Finch Lee, also known as Miss Fanny, was overweight and emotionally fragile.

Lee was a tough little tomboy who enjoyed beating up the local boys, climbing trees and rolling in the dirt.  One boy on the receiving end of Nelle's thrashings was Truman Persons (later Capote), who spent several summers next door to Nelle with relatives. The two became fast friends, acting out adventures from "The Rover Boys" and, after Nelle's father gave the two children an old Underwood typewriter, making up their own stories to dictate to each other.

Capote later wrote Nelle into his first book, "Other Voices, Other Rooms", where she appears as the tomboy Idabel Tompkins. She made a repeat appearance as Ann Finchburg, nicknamed Jumbo, in his story "The Thanksgiving Visitor". Lee returned the favour, casting Capote in the role of the little blond tale-spinner Dill in "To Kill a Mockingbird".

In one of Lee's last interviews, with a Chicago radio show in 1964, she talked in some detail about her literary ambition: to describe, in a series of novels, the world she grew up in and now saw disappearing. "This is small-town middle-class Southern life as opposed to the Gothic, as opposed to 'Tobacco Road,' as opposed to plantation life," she told her interviewer, adding that she was fascinated by the "rich social pattern" in such places. "I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing," she continued. "In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama".

New York Times