There will be many obituaries and tributes to Harper Lee, but I would be remiss if I let her passing go without a tribute of my own. Author of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Lee was considered to have defined the racial problem in the South at a time when change was coming to the forefront of news from the South and from Washington, D.C. There was racial unrest, freedom fighters, peaceful marches, bombings of churches, and that “strange fruit” that Billie Holiday sang about. It had to be more than a little brave of Lee to publish a book about justice for all no matter the colour and to follow it up with a movie during such turbulent times.
For decades, Lee never wrote another book although her fans prayed that she would More than 40 million copies of Mockingbird sold during her lifetime. She collaborated with Truman Capote, who had been a childhood friend, in gathering information for his book In Cold Blood. However their relationship became strained when his book didn’t win a Pulitzer and Mockingbird had. Lee saw how fame could compromise her need for privacy and basically withdrew from the public eye, never seeking attention or writing a subsequent novel.
In 2015, a second novel did surface amid a great deal of controversy. Go Set a Watchman had been submitted to Lee’s publishers in 1957 but her editor thought it needed backstory, and so Mockingbird was written. I felt that Watchman brought perspective to Mockingbird and that Watchman was more about Scout finding her own voice than about Atticus who seems to be treading more carefully through turbulent change. I could hear Lee’s voice through her words in Watchman and was grateful the work had been found and published.
There have been many articles and books written, and documentaries made about Harper Lee despite rare appearances and even rarer interviews. The townspeople of Monroeville, Alabama, appreciated her, and anyone trying to track her down came up against a brick wall — her privacy was to be respected. For the last several years, she lived in the Meadows, an assisted living community in Monroeville, due to diminished eyesight and hearing after experiencing a stroke in 2007. Even so, her friends said she was bright and witty and in good health. She died quietly in her sleep. Her book, Mockingbird, impacted many, many people over the years and she will be remembered as one of the most beloved authors of the twentieth century.