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The Measure Of Harper Lee: A Life Shaped By A Towering Text

Peering back across Harper Lee's life, it can seem impossible to distinguish the novelist from her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee died at the age of 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., on Friday morning — yet it's clear that her legacy will live on much longer than that, through her characters and the readers who have embraced them for decades.

"America and the world knew Harper Lee as one of the last century's most beloved authors," Hank Conner, Lee's nephew, announced in a statement. "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."

Conner's experience, though — and the experiences of those who knew Lee personally — are exceptional. For the most part, Lee's readers have known the author only through To Kill a Mockingbird, her debut — and, for decades, her only — novel.

The book depicts the strivings of a small-town Alabama lawyer, Atticus Finch, on behalf of Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping a white woman, and it casts the events through the lens of Finch's precocious daughter, Scout. Despite its relative brevity, the book bears considerable weight, both in the gravity of its themes and the care with which it treats them.

Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel <em>To Kill a Mockingbird</em>, photographed in 1963.
/ AP
Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, photographed in 1963.

Perhaps, then, it should be no surprise that Lee and her editor, Tay Hohoff, weren't exactly expecting this book to fly off store shelves.

Hohoff "cautioned her that a book with racism at its center involving a rape trial was not a thing in 1960 to make people run to the bookstores for," says Charles J. Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. "She counseled her client and said, 'If we sell 2,500 copies and break even, you should be proud.' "

You already know this twist: Turns out they were flat wrong.

The book all but immediately became a best-seller. (And it's gone on to sell more than 40 million copies, according to The Washington Post.) It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Just a year later, it was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film.

What accounts for that kind of success? In many ways, it struck a chord for the very reasons Lee's editor was feeling cautious, says Mary Murphy, director of the documentary Hey, Boo: Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird.

"You know, there were two big revolutions in the '60s in this country when To Kill a Mockingbird came out: One was civil rights and the other was women's rights. And in a way, To Kill a Mockingbird speaks to both those things," Murphy says.

"Scout Finch at 6 enjoyed, as child growing up in the Depression, enjoyed more freedoms than most women in the '60s did. She wore pants, she swore, she played with boys, she spoke her mind," Murphy continues. "And of course the Civil Rights movement: Many people I spoke to who were active in the movement said that the fact that a white Southerner wrote that book gave them hope that justice could prevail."

And then, seemingly all at once, Lee was gone — at least, that's how the popular narrative goes. The author quietly continued to write, but she decided to step out of the spotlight. Lee did not publish another novel for more than five decades, and she refused nearly every attempt by the press to speak with her.

Naturally, there grew around her the mythology of the reclusive writer. It's a myth that Murphy says simply isn't true.

"Harper Lee was not a recluse. She was not holed up in her house like Boo Radley — unless of course, you were a reporter, and then she was not going to talk to you," Murphy says. "I think that's a big distinction."

Wayne Flynt, her friend and professor emeritus at Auburn University, says her absence had little to do with preconceived notions of her personality.

"Many people describe her as an introvert, many people explain her as being extremely shy, she was neither an introvert nor shy," Flynt says. "She was a private woman, she lived very much within herself, she was quite content within herself."

And he explains Lee's decision not to publish again — for decades — quite simply.

"I suppose what I would say is that there are some writers who have one great story to tell and they tell that one great story."

In the meantime, that singular novel was becoming a staple on high school syllabi, a beloved text read and reread even as its era passed on into the next, and new generations picked up the book.

"The people who have To Kill a Mockingbird seared in memory — their first reading experience of To Kill a Mockingbird seared in their brain — it's the biggest book club in the world," Murphy says. "I mean, for all our conversations about Facebook and social media, To Kill a Mockingbird is the biggest social media group of our time, in a way."

Lee was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in 2007, and a National Medal of Arts in 2010.

Then, the second twist: Last year, after some 55 years of waiting, Lee decided it was time to publish a second novel, Go Set a Watchman. The book was initially billed by many as a sequel to Mockingbird, for it shared principal characters, reviving Atticus and Scout in a setting several years later than Mockingbird's main action.

Eden Sherman checks out <em>Go Set a Watchman</em> at the Books and Books store last year in Coral Gables, Fla.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Getty Images
Eden Sherman checks out Go Set a Watchman at the Books and Books store last year in Coral Gables, Fla.

Yet, in many ways, it was less a sequel than a glimpse at what would have been, had Lee gone with her first impulses as a writer rather than following her editor's advice and reworking her first drafts. For years, Hohoff had worked with Lee on radical revisions to the text, from 1957 to the book's eventual publication in 1960, according to The New York Times.

"I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told," Lee said in a 2015 statement.

Go Set a Watchman, then, let Lee's early visions of her definitive work find the light of day. In the process, though, it also invited significant skepticism that Lee, who had suffered a stroke in 2007, was fully in control of the decision.

Then, there were the decidedly mixed reviews.

"All I know for certain is that Go Set a Watchman is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece," NPR's Maureen Corrigan, for one, wrote about the book when it was released in July 2015. Her assessment was by no means uncommon.

Lee's own reaction to the reviews and the controversy?

"She chortled," Flynt told at the time.

And herein, perhaps, rests a lesson: Despite our best attempts to confine Lee's life to the pages she wrote and the characters she created, her own life far exceeded the bounds of her book covers. Lee was more than Atticus, Scout and Tom; she was more than the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. And, perhaps, she often remembered that fact much better than the rest of us.

"She was a good companion," Flynt remembers. "She had lots of people she adored.

"One thing I will say about Harper Lee: If you ever met Harper Lee, you got just exactly what you saw. She never tried to be anything her entire life except who she was."

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Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.
Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.