RIP: Harper Lee (1926–2016)

The legendary author was eighty-nine years old.

Early this morning, novelist Harper Lee passed away in her sleep at an assisted living facility in Monroeville, Alabama. The reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird was two months away from her ninetieth birthday when she died.

The author of only two novels in her lifetime, Lee’s influence on American literature and education is unparalleled. Her first book, 1960’s To Kill a Mockingbird, continues to be a staple in school curriculums around the country. The story follows Atticus Finch—a lawyer that defends a black man who was wrongfully accused of raping a white woman—but is told through the narration of his six-year-old tomboy daughter Scout. Written through the voice of a child, To Kill a Mockingbird‘s plain-spoken prose is easy to understand and enjoy, but the novel is deftly able to address incredibly serious issues like tolerance, racial injustice, and rape. Scout’s innocence and Atticus’s commitment to justice have been embedded into the hearts and minds of readers for over fifty years.

After the massive success of To Kill a Mockingbird, which won her the Pulitzer Prize, Lee shut herself off from the rest of the world. Instant fame was jarring to the author who refused to speak as she accepted awards and honorary doctorates. It was only in 2015 when she reemerged with news of her sophomore novel, Go Set a Watchman. Controversy surrounded the Mockingbird sequel from its strange discovery by Lee’s longtime lawyer to its tepid reception by the press. Lee’s decision to reveal that Atticus becomes a racist within Watchman shook fans of her iconic debut novel, even though she did write the “new” book before Mockingbird.

While his legacy might be tarnished in print, Atticus Finch will always be immortalized on screen as the moral compass for America in the beloved 1962 film adaptation 0f To Kill a Mockingbird. The movie version stayed faithful to the novel and earned Gregory Peck an Academy Award for his portrayal of the bespectacled small-town lawyer. News also broke earlier this month that the first authorized Broadway adaptation of Mockingbird was moving forward with Aaron Sorkin writing the play.

Even fifty-six years after its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird is widely considered one of the greatest American novels ever written. And even though she promptly stepped out of the spotlight, Harper Lee’s voice continues to impact society as a whole.

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