Harper Lee, whose first novel To Kill A Mockingbird went on to sell an incredible 40m copies, has died aged 89 in her hometown of Monroevilla, Alabama.
Nelle Harper Lee was born on 28 April 1926 to lawyer and newspaper editor Amasa Coleman Lee and Frances Cunningham Finch Lee.
As a child she shared summers with another aspiring writer, Truman Capote, who later invited her to accompany him to Holcomb, Kansas to help him research his groundbreaking 1966 novel In Cold Blood.
Lee hoped to carry on in her father’s footsteps and enrolled to study law at the University of Alabama. Yet six months shy of finishing her studies in 1949, Lee moved to New York to pursue a literary career.
The instant success of To Kill a Mockingbird after its publication in 1960 transformed Lee into a literary celebrity. The novel went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the next year. It has since been translated into 40 languages, and sells over a million copies in the US every year.
The novel is studied in classrooms throughout the globe, and for many, was the first glimpse at social injustice, discrimination and segregation. The morality and obvious sense of wrong from right which seeps from the pages of To Kill A Mockingbird has created a positive framework of principles which are vital for those of an impressionable age, with many sighting the novel as their favourite piece of literature.
The film adaptation, starring Gregory Peck as civil rights lawyer Atticus Finch (a character loosely based on her own father), and Mary Badham as Scout, opened on Christmas Day of 1962 and was an instant hit.
Lee did not enjoy the spotlight her literary capabilities inevitably created, becoming a recluse whose appearances in public made the news purely because they were a rarity. She spoke seldom to the press, granting her last interview in 1964.
She never married and had no children, and spent her time flitting between Alabama and New York
In 2007, Lee suffered a stroke and lived her final years in a nursing home less than a mile from the house in which she had grown up in Monroeville, Alabama- the setting for the fictional Maycomb in To Kill A Mockingbird.
President Barack Obama awarded Lee the National Medal of Arts in 2010, the highest honour given by the U.S. government for “outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts.”
To Kill A Mockingbird was Lee’s only book for more than five decades, yet in July 2015 Go Set A Watchman was published.
In just one week, the new novel (which was an earlier draft of To Kill A Mockingbird set two decades later), sold more than 1.1 million copies, making it the fastest selling book in the history of its publisher.
Lee is the embodiment of what young writers ought to aspire towards. She was able to write the perfect novel, on first attempt, whilst addressing serious issues of race relations and segregation in an approachable way which alienated none.
The message Lee conveyed in her writing is just as relevant, if not more so, at a time of fragmented race relations in the US and across the globe. If her novels are to teach us anything, it’s that injustice and discrimination does not go away without people standing up and making their voices heard.
“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”