Harper Lee, the author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, has died in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer was 89.
Monroeville city officials confirmed reports of Lee’s death to Alabama Public Radio. Her publisher, HarperCollins, also confirmed the news to NPR.
Her famous novel about a young girl’s experience of racial tensions in a small Southern town has sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages.
Lee’s family issued a statement Friday morning saying that Lee “passed away in her sleep early this morning. Her passing was unexpected. She remained in good basic health until her passing.”
Family spokesman Hank Conner, Lee’s nephew, said:
“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. 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.”
The family says that as Lee had requested, a private funeral service will be held.
Lee made headlines last year, on the news that a companion to her beloved novel would be coming out some 55 years after To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in 1960. When that book, Go Set a Watchman, was published last summer, it set off debates about the author’s health and how involved she had been in the project.
An Alabama native, Lee moved to New York City in 1948 with the dream of being a writer. For about eight years, she worked as an airline reservationist at Eastern Airlines.
“Lee’s fortunes began to improve at the end of 1956 when her friends Michael and Joy Williams Brown gave Nelle, as those close to Lee call her, a generous Christmas gift: enough money to spend a year writing. That’s when she completed the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman. The novel helped her find an agent, who got her signed to the publisher J.B. Lippincott. But Go Set a Watchman was never released. Instead, Lee’s editor urged her to expand on the flashback passages set during Scout’s childhood. Lee spent more than two years writing and rewriting the novel that became known as To Kill a Mockingbird.”
When it was published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird found immediate success. Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year, and the novel inspired a film adaptation that came out in 1962 starring Mary Badham as Scout and Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
That film was also a smashing success, garnering numerous Academy Award nominations and several wins.
Lee was famous for avoiding the public eye — one of the last extensive interviews she gave took place in 1964, when she spoke to New York radio station WQXR. Here’s some of what she said:
“Well, my objectives are very limited. I think I want to do the best I can with the talent that God gave me, I suppose. I would like to be the chronicler of something that I think is going down the drain very swiftly, and that is small-town, middle-class Southern life. There is something universal in it. Something decent to be said for it, and something to lament, once it goes, in its passing. In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”
In that same conversation, Lee also spoke of how she had attended law school, but “I didn’t graduate. I left the university one semester before I’d have gotten my degree.”
In 2007, Lee was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she was honored with a National Medal of Arts in 2010.
Here’s how news website AL.com describes Lee’s final years:
“Harper Lee suffered a stroke in 2007, recovered and resumed her life in the hometown where she spent many of her 89 years. A guardedly private individual, Lee was respected and protected by residents of the town that displays Mockingbird-themed murals and each year stages theatrical productions of To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Lee returned to Monroeville for good once her sister Alice became ill and needed help. She’d eat breakfast each morning at the same fast-food place, and could later be seen picking up Alice from the law firm founded by their father.”
President and Mrs. Obama released this statement Friday in memory of Lee:
“‘Atticus, he was real nice.’
“‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.’
“When Harper Lee sat down to write To Kill a Mockingbird, she wasn’t seeking awards or fame. She was a country girl who just wanted to tell an honest story about life as she saw it.
“But what that one story did, more powerfully than one hundred speeches possibly could, was change the way we saw each other, and then the way we saw ourselves. Through the uncorrupted eyes of a child, she showed us the beautiful complexity of our common humanity, and the importance of striving for justice in our own lives, our communities, and our country.
“Ms. Lee changed America for the better. And there is no higher tribute we can offer her than to keep telling this timeless American story — to our students, to our neighbors, and to our children — and to constantly try, in our own lives, to finally see each other.”