June July 2016
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The Advocate

Harper Lee Dies at 89

Harper Lee

Harper Lee has died.

The New York Times reports that a city clerk in Monroeville, Alabama, the town of Lee's residence, confirmed her death, but no other details. She was 89.

The Southern writer penned To Kill a Mockingbird, a 1960 novel about racial injustice. It went on to not only win the Pulitzer Prize, but also an enduring place in the American literary canon.

The book is told from the perspective of Scout, a gender-nonconforming youth whose father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, sets off a firestorm in their small town when he defends a black man in court. Set in the Deep South in 1936, the novel's themes of race, class, and gender continue to be discussed in a majority of secondary schools across the country.

More than literary study, To Kill a Mockingbird inspired generations of readers to follow the example of Atticus and fight for justice, particularly for people or groups in need. As the novel states, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

An Oscar-winning film adaptation starring Gregory Peck was released in 1962.

Lee, a recluse, rarely made public appearances. Mockingbird remained her only published book until a controversial companion novel, Go Set a Watchman, was released in 2015. It was reportedly discovered by Lee's lawyer among her papers.

The book portrays a grown-up Scout and a more racially biased version of Atticus, who in this iteration is a proponent of segregation. Watchman ignited controversy upon its release, both for its alleged tarnishing of a literary hero's reputation as well as for suspicions as to whether Lee, who had been suffering from poor health, was of sound mind when she approved its publication.

The question as to whether or not another book would be released in Lee's lifetime was one of the most frequently asked about the writer. The other two most asked questions were, "Is she dead? Is she gay?" reports the New York Times, in an interview with Lee's biographer, Charles J. Shields. The answer to the latter query is "none of your business," according to the Times review of the 2006 memoir.

Lee was raised as Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Ala., where she, like Scout, was a tomboy. There, she befriended a young Truman Capote, who would spend summers with family next door. The pair would go on adventures and create stories together, long before they both found literary fame.

A character in To Kill a Mockingbird, Dill, was inspired by the gay author. Lee also assisted Capote in researching In Cold Blood, a nonfiction novel about the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Kansas.

Lee was thanked briefly in In Cold Blood's dedication for "secretarial help;" the critical and commercial success of her novel created professional jealousies within their relationship. The success stunned Lee herself, as she revealed in a 1964 interview.

"I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird,” she said. "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."

"I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected."

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