To Kill a Mockingbird, the classic 1960 novel about racism in a small Southern town, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, became an important name on high school reading lists and turned its author into one of American literature’s most honoured figures.
But fame and its burdens overwhelmed Harper Lee, who wrote one masterpiece, then shut the door on an adoring public. She had hoped for modest approval of her debut work "but I got rather a whole lot," she once said, "and in some ways this was just about as frightening."
Her literary silence lasted 55 years, until a second manuscript suddenly surfaced: Go Set a Watchman, written before Mockingbird but set 20 years later, was published in 2015 amid tremendous fanfare and record-breaking sales. Yet it only deepened the mystery surrounding Lee.
Where had the manuscript been all those years? Was it a sequel to Mockingbird or just the first draft? Was the decision to publish it really Lee's? Or had the octogenarian author, struggling with the weaknesses of age, been forced to release a work she had buried so long?
Lee, as had been her habit, gave no interviews, remaining a puzzle until her death on Friday, February 19, 2016. She was 89, and died in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama. She sparked a national conversation about racism with To Kill a Mockingbird.
Loosely based on her life growing up in the small Alabama town of Monroeville in the 1930s, it was a coming-of-age story as well as a gripping tale of injustice, told from the perspective of a lively 6-year-old girl named Scout.
She is awakened to the ugly realities of life in the Old Confederacy when her lawyer father, Atticus Finch, defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Other central characters include Scouts daredevil older brother Jem, local recluse Boo Radley, the Finches' black housekeeper Calpurnia, and Scout’s and Jem’s friend, Dill.
Dill, Lee later said, was based on her childhood friend Truman Capote, who spent summers at his relatives' house next door to the Lees. The two remained close as writers, with Lee providing crucial reporting help when Capote went to Kansas in 1959 to investigate a murder that became the focal point of his most famous book, In Cold Blood.
Scout, Dill and the others were all outsiders in some sense, a plight at the core of Mockingbird and its lessons. "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view," Atticus tells Scout. "Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."
One of the reasons for the book’s enduring appeal is that it "asks one of the most important questions facing humans - how to get along with people different from us," said Charles J. Shields, who wrote a well-regarded 2006 biography of Lee, called Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird has never been out of print, with more than 40 million copies sold in at least 40 languages. Major polls have ranked it close behind the Bible as one of the most influential books ever written. US President George W Bush said the novel "influenced the character of our country for the better" when he awarded Lee the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2007.
Hollywood bolstered the book’s standing in popular culture with a faithful 1962 adaptation that earned three Academy Awards, including one for Gregory Peck as the noble Atticus, a character the American Film Institute later named the greatest movie hero of the 20th century.
Go Set a Watchman offers a darker examination of the conditions that would drive the civil rights campaigns of the ’60s.
It takes place in the same fictional town, Maycomb, with most of the same characters. But Scout is a young woman of 26 who goes by her proper name, Jean Louise. And Atticus is no longer her guiding light.
What one critic thought of Watchman
The principled idealist whose earlier portrayal inspired generations of lawyers, teachers and activists is, in Watchman, a racist who has mingled with Ku Klux Klan members and denounces desegregation. "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?" he asks his daughter.
Most critics said Watchman was a seriously flawed work, more interesting as artifact than literature.
Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times
called it "a lumpy tale about a young woman's grief over her discovery of her father's bigoted views" and found it lacking the lyricism of Mockingbird
Other critics were more welcoming, such as the Guardian’s Mark Lawson
, who called the new work "a pleasure, revelation and genuine literary event, akin to the discovery of extra sections from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land
or a missing act from Hamlet
hinting that the prince may have killed his father."
The old manuscript was discovered in a bank vault by Lee's lawyer, Tonja Carter. Her accounts of the discovery varied; she said she might have handled it in 2011 without realising what it was, but in 2014 she found out that it was not, as she first believed, merely a rough draft of Mockingbird.
The sudden appearance of a second novel raised suspicions that Lee, who had a stroke in 2007, was not fully engaged in the decision to publish it. HarperCollins announced the book's release just a few months after the death of Alice Lee, the author's older sister and a prominent local attorney (Lee called her "Atticus in a skirt"), who had long acted as her legal and literary guardian.
In 2011, Alice had commented on her sister's frailties. "Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence," Alice, calling her sister by her given name, wrote in a statement disputing a claim that Lee had cooperated with writer Marja Mills' memoir about them.
Alabama investigators, acting on a complaint that Lee had been tricked into publishing the second novel, interviewed the author at her Monroeville nursing home but determined that she had consented to its publication.
Watchman became HarperCollins' fastest-selling book, with sales that exceeded 1 million copies in the first week alone.
The book provided scholars and others with new clues about the literary legend who had avoided the limelight for so long. Like the grown-up Scout of Watchman, Lee had left her tight-knit family to build a separate life in New York, but ultimately heeded the call to go home.
"Hell is eternal apartness," she wrote in Watchman about the young woman who struggles with disillusionment after she returns to the South.
"What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn't care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party."