Harper Lee, the author of best-selling novel To Kill a Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89.
Multiple sources in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., confirmed the news Friday morning. Her death was also confirmed by HarperCollins, her publisher.
The famed writer won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 for her most famous work, which discussed race relations in the U.S.
For most of her life, Lee divided her time between New York City, where she wrote the novel in the 1950s, and her hometown, which inspired the book’s fictional Maycomb.
To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, is the story of a girl nicknamed Scout growing up in a Depression-era Southern town. A black man has been wrongly accused of raping a white woman, and Scout’s father, the resolute lawyer Atticus Finch, defends him despite threats and the scorn of many.
The book quickly became a bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a memorable movie in 1962, with Gregory Peck winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus. As the civil rights movement grew, the novel inspired a generation of young lawyers, was assigned in high schools all over the country and was a popular choice for citywide, or nationwide, reading programs.
By 2015, its sales were reported by HarperCollins to be more than 40 million worldwide, making it one of the most widely read American novels of the 20th century. When the Library of Congress did a survey in 1991 on books that have affected people’s lives, To Kill a Mockingbird was second only to the Bible.
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Lee herself became more mysterious as her book became more famous. At first, she dutifully promoted her work. She spoke frequently to the press, wrote about herself and gave speeches, once to a class of cadets at West Point.
Much of Lee’s story is the story of Mockingbird, and how she responded to it. She wasn’t a bragger, like Norman Mailer, or a drinker, like William Failkner, or a recluse or eccentric. By the accounts of friends and Monroeville townsfolk, she was a warm, vibrant and witty woman who enjoyed life, played golf, read voraciously and got about to plays and concerts. She just didn’t want to talk about it before an audience.
Claudia Durst Johnson, author of a book-length critical analysis of Lee’s novel, described her as preferring to guard her privacy “like others in an older generation, who didn’t go out and talk about themselves on Oprah or the Letterman show at the drop of a hat.” According to Johnson, Lee also complained that the news media invariably misquoted her.
Lee emerged more often over the past few years, although not always in ways she preferred. She was involved in numerous legal disputes over the rights to her book and denied she had co-operated with the biography The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee, by Marja Mills.
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Other occasions were happier. She wrote a letter of thanks in 2001 when the Chicago Public Library chose Mockingbird for its first One Book, One Chicago program. In 2007, she agreed to attend a White House ceremony at which she received a Presidential Medal of Honor. Around the same time, she wrote a rare published item — for O, The Oprah Magazine — about how she became a reader as a child in a rural, Depression-era Alabama town, and remained one.
“Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books,” she wrote.
By 2014, she had given in to the digital age and allowed her novel to come out as an e-book, calling it “Mockingbird for a new generation.”
Born in Alabama, Nelle Harper Lee was known to family and friends as Nelle (pronounced Nell) — the name of a relative, Ellen, spelled backward. Like Atticus Finch, her father was a lawyer and state legislator. One of her childhood friends was Truman Capote, who lived with relatives next door to the Lees for several years. (A book about Lee in 2006 and two films about Capote brought fresh attention to their friendship, including her contributions to Capote’s In Cold Blood, the classic “nonfiction novel” about the murder of a Kansas farm family.
Capote became the model for Scout’s creative, impish and loving friend Dill. In the novel, Dill is described as “a pocket Merlin, whose head teamed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies.”
Lee’s friendship with Capote was evident later when she travelled frequently with him to Kansas, beginning in 1959, to help him do research for what became his own bestseller, In Cold Blood. He dedicated the book to her and his longtime companion, Jack Dunphy, but never acknowledged how vital a role she played in its creation.
Lee said in the 1960s that she was working on a second novel, but over time it dropped from view and never reached a publisher.
Lee researched another book, a non-fiction account of a bizarre voodoo murder case in rural east Alabama, but abandoned the project in the 1980s.
Immediately after news of her passing broke, tributes began pouring in.
“The world has lost a brilliant mind and a great writer,” says Spencer Madrie, owner of Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe, a small, independent book store in Lee’s hometown. “We will remember Harper Lee for her candour, her talent, and the truths she gave the world, perhaps before the world was ready. We are grateful to have had a connection to an author who offered so much. There will always be something missing from Monroeville and the world at large in the absence of Harper Lee.”
Twitter was absolutely flooded with gratitude for the author:
After achieving widespread fame with To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee spent several years avoiding the limelight. She refused to give interviews and only returned to writing in 2015 when she published her second novel Go Set A Watchman. The novel followed the same characters from Mockingbird and won the hearts of many readers and fans.
While reviews of the book were mixed, The Guardian credited it for offering an insightful look at American culture and its history.
Watchman was written before Mockingbird, but was set 20 years later. Readers and reviewers were disheartened to find an Atticus who seemed nothing like the hero of the earlier book. The man who defied the status quo in Mockingbird was now part of the mob in Watchman, denouncing the Supreme Court’s ruling that school segregation was unconstitutional and denouncing blacks as unfit to enjoy full equality.
“Too many people have been left disappointed to their own misimaginings of this book, but if you read it with an open mind (and try not to compare it too much to To Kill a Mockingbird) [we] think you’ll be surprised,” commented the paper. “It [is] a wonderful story, filled with a range of ideologies and opinions that are great to sink your teeth into.”
With files from The Associated PressFollow @CJancelewicz
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