November 24, 2017

Harper Lee, Author of Library Mainstay To Kill a Mockingbird, Dies at 89

harperleeHarper Lee, author of the bestselling novel To Kill a Mockingbird and its recently published controversial predecessor, Go Set a Watchman, died on February 19 at the age of 89. To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of American literature, widely taught in U.S. classrooms despite its most recent ranking as 21 of the American Library Association’s (ALA) 100 most challenged books in the last decade. In 1998, an LJ poll voted it “Best Novel of the Century.” In 2001, the Chicago Public Library launched its “One Book, One Chicago” program with a citywide read of Mockingbird, which was borrowed by over 6,500 library patrons, including the circulation of 350 foreign language copies. It remains the most popular title for “One Book, One City” programs, having been chosen by more than 60 cities across the country.

To Kill a Mockingbird has also been a part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) Big Read in more than 140 communities nationwide. When Staten Island OutLOUD chose the book for their Big Read program, according to a statement from NEA, they found it “a timely focus for community conversation.”

When Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s second and final novel, was published in July 2015, it sold more than one million copies in North America in its first week of release. Libraries nationwide planned programming well in advance of the book’s launch ranging from book clubs to discussion groups to games; holds exceeded available copies everywhere before its publication date.

LJ's Best Books of the Century, November 15, 1998

LJ‘s Best Books of the Century, November 15, 1998

“Lee’s voice in the literary world will be sorely missed,” said Angela Fisher Hall, director of the Birmingham Public Library, in a press statement. “She was a true icon in American literature.”

A WARM RECEPTION

Nelle Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926 in Monroeville, AL. She attended the then all-female Huntingdon College in Montgomery for a year and studied law at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, although she did not complete a degree. Lee moved to New York City in 1949, where she worked as an airline reservations clerk and wrote in her spare time.

As a Christmas gift in 1956, Lee’s friends Michael and Joy Brown gave her a check equal to a year’s salary, with a note that read, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.” That year resulted in the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman, which was bought by publishers J.B. Lippincott & Company in 1957. Lee’s editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, asked her to rework the novel. She complied, making major changes to the story line and to several main characters, notably giving the protagonist, Jean Louise Finch—aka Scout—a child’s point of view, rather than that of a woman in her 20s, and setting the action earlier. The heavily revised version was published in 1960 as To Kill a Mockingbird.

MockingbirdReviewb-300x298

LJ Review of To Kill a Mockingbird, July 11, 1960

Mockingbird, a layered coming-of-age tale of racism, small-town life, and moral awakening set in the South of Lee’s childhood, was an immediate bestseller, winning the 1961 Pulitzer Prize. In 1962 it was adapted into an Academy Award–winning film. The Library Journal review of July 1960 deemed Mockingbird “A compassionate, deeply moving novel, and a most persuasive plea for racial justice.” Lee was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in 2007 and a National Medal of Arts in 2010. With its examination of class, race, and justice, Mockingbird has sold upwards of 40 million copies internationally and has been translated into more than 40 languages.

Fans worldwide awaited Lee’s next book. But with the exception of a few essays she published no new work, refusing requests for interviews and public appearances as well. For years she divided her time between New York and Monroeville, eventually settling in an Alabama nursing home near her sister Alice, who died in 2014.

WATCHMAN DISCOVERED

In February 2015 HarperCollins announced that Lee’s earlier manuscript had been discovered in her safe-deposit box, and that the resulting novel, Go Set a Watchman, would be released with Lee’s blessings. Reactions to the news were mixed. Many felt that at 88, blind and having suffered a stroke, Lee was not competent to make the decision to publish, and that the book represented only a rough draft of her first novel rather than a sequel. However, an investigation by the Alabama Human Resources Department ruled that no coercion was involved; two interviews with Lee at the time of Watchman’s publication are available to view on InfoDOCKET.

Even apart from the circumstances of its publication, the novel attracted controversy, particularly for its less polished quality and changes to beloved characters from Mockingbird that reflected a harsher, more realistic portrait of the racial inequity of the time. School Library Journal took a look at how teachers planned to present the book, and Library Journal examined the response in libraries across the country. Almost 55 years to the day after LJ covered Lee’s first novel, Barbara Hoffert reviewed Go Set a Watchman, pronouncing it “Disturbing, important, and not to be compared with Mockingbird; this book is its own signal work.”

MISSED BY MANY

Harper Lee signature in Birmingham Public Library copy of To Kill a Mockingbird IMG_4155

Harper Lee signature in Birmingham Public Library
copy of To Kill a Mockingbird
Courtesy of Birmingham Public Library

Lee’s family released a statement to the media saying she died in her sleep Friday morning, February 19. Despite her stroke several years ago, she had been in good health recently. “This is a sad day for our family. America and the world knew Harper Lee as one of the last century’s most beloved authors,” Hank Conner, Lee’s nephew and a spokesman for the family, said in a statement Friday morning. “We knew her as Nelle Harper Lee, a loving member of our family, a devoted friend to the many good people who touched her life, and a generous soul in our community and our state. We will miss her dearly.”

Librarians across the New York Public Library system shared their memories and thoughts on Lee and her books. Amy Geduldig of communications and marketing recalled, “To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book I read that made me feel like an adult. I was 13 and I bought a copy of it to bring with me to summer camp. I knew it was a classic, but no one told me to read it. I finished the book in three days.”

“The world knows Harper Lee was a brilliant writer but what many don’t know is that she was an extraordinary woman of great joyfulness, humility, and kindness,” Michael Morrison, president and publisher of HarperCollins U.S. General Books Group and Canada, said in a statement. “She lived her life the way she wanted to—in private—surrounded by books and the people who loved her. I will always cherish the time I spent with her.”

Lee’s agent, Andrew Nurnberg, said, “Knowing Nelle these past few years has been not just an utter delight but an extraordinary privilege. When I saw her just six weeks ago, she was full of life, her mind and mischievous wit as sharp as ever.  She was quoting Thomas More and setting me straight on Tudor history.  We have lost a great writer, a great friend, and a beacon of integrity.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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