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Harper Lee: Beloved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ author dies

Harper Lee created a work that has endured for generations with her first novel 'Mockingbird,' which told the story of Scout Finch and her experiences as her father battles racism.

Rob Carr/AP
Harper Lee attends a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor at the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. in 2007.

Harper Lee, author of the beloved novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has died.

Ms. Lee’s “Mockingbird,” which told the story of young Scout Finch and her experiences as her lawyer father Atticus struggles against racism in Depression-era Alabama, was her first novel. 

The 1960 book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and has since became a staple of English departments in schools across America. It was adapted into an Oscar-winning 1962 movie.

Lee’s only other novel was the 2015 work “Go Set a Watchman,” which continued the story of “Mockingbird,” centering on an adult Scout. 

The author was born in Monroeville, Alabama, and Lee’s father, Asa Coleman Lee, is often attributed as an inspiration for Scout’s staunch father, Atticus. Truman Capote was a childhood friend. Lee went to Huntingdon College and then to the University of Alabama to study law.

When “Mockingbird” was released, it quickly became a bestseller. In the decades after, she became a somewhat mysterious figure as she avoided interviews and a new book failed to appear until "Watchman."

"Mockingbird" became a cherished work worldwide and Lee herself became an icon. 

“It’s impossible to overstate her importance to this state,” Andy Crank, assistant professor of American literature at the University of Alabama, says in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. Of the book, Mr. Crank says, “It’s part of our hearts, it’s part of our heritage, it’s part of the culture here.”

Kerry Madden-Lunsford, associate professor of creative writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the author of “Up Close: Harper Lee,” calls her “the daughter of Alabama.” 

“She’s so beloved here, from generation to generation,” Ms. Madden-Lunsford says in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. 

"Mockingbird" presents various ideas, including that of standing up for what is right even if your opponents are those you love. Crank says he believes one of the most important lessons of the book is father Atticus’s comment that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”

“The one that is really needed right now is this idea of empathy,” Crank says. 

Because "Mockingbird" is narrated by young Scout, the reader experiences the turbulent events through the eyes of a child. One underrated aspect of the novel, Crank says, is Lee’s skill at depicting a young character and the adventures of childhood. 

“You remember what it’s like to be a child, the magic and the mystery of it,” he says of reading the book. 

But far from classifying it as children’s literature, Madden-Lunsford says it’s a book that takes on different meanings as the reader grows older. 

“It’s one that you turn to at different stages of your life,” she says. 

While all the characters are memorable, Scout’s adored father Atticus has become an American literary example of courage – and a cinematic one, with the American Film Institute declaring him the best hero in all of cinema in a 2003 ranking. 

But his courtroom actions aren’t the only aspect of his life that’s inspirational. “It made me aim higher as a mother,” Madden-Lunsford says of Atticus’s example of parenting. 

“Mockingbird” will continue to be beloved in years to come, says Crank.

“’To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a masterpiece,” Crank says. “Harper Lee is a genius. That novel is going to continue to be compelling.”

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