Saturday, February 20, 2016


Harper Lee (1926-2016)


Harper Lee, Author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Dies at 89

Harper Lee, whose first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” about racial injustice in a small Alabama town, sold more than 40 million copies and became one of the most beloved and most taught works of fiction ever written by an American, died on Friday in Monroeville, Ala., where she lived. She was 89.
“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.
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, Ms. 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.

Editors at Lippincott told Ms. Lee that her manuscript read like a string of anecdotes, not a novel, but encouraged her to revise. Eventually they paid a small advance and assigned her to work with Tay Hohoff, an experienced editor with whom she developed a close working and personal relationship.

As the novel made its way toward publication, Mr. Capote called with a proposal. He was going to Kansas to research the shocking murder of a farm family. Would she like to come along as his “assistant researchist”?

Ms. Lee jumped at the offer. “He said it would be a tremendously involved job and would take two people,” she later told Newsweek. “The crimes intrigued him, and I’m intrigued by crime — and, boy, I wanted to go. It was deep calling to deep.”

For months, Ms. Lee accompanied Mr. Capote as he interviewed police investigators and local people. Engaging and down to earth, she opened doors that, without her, would have remained closed to her companion, whose flamboyantly effeminate manner struck many townspeople as outlandish. Each night she wrote detailed reports on her impressions and turned them over to Mr. Capote. Later she read his manuscript closely and offered comments.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” became a runaway best seller. Signs of its success were visible almost immediately after it was published in July 1960. Both Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild made the novel one of their selections, and Reader’s Digest condensed it. A week after publication, the novel jumped to the top of the best-seller lists; it remained there for 88 weeks.

(The New York Times, Feb. 19, 2016)

Harper Lee and Truman Capote in 1960.
Credit The Truman Capote Literary Trust,
via NYPL The New York Public Library

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