Rest in peace, Scout.
Harper Lee, whose first novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” about racial injustice in a small Alabama town, sold more than 10 million copies and became one of the most beloved and most taught works of fiction ever written by an American, has died. She was 89.
Nelle Harper Lee was born in the poky little town of Monroeville, in southern Alabama, the youngest of four children. “Nelle” was a backward spelling of her maternal grandmother’s first name, and Ms. Lee dropped it when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published, out of fear that readers would pronounce it Nellie, which she hated.
Her father, Asa Coleman Lee, was a prominent lawyer and the model for Atticus Finch, who shared his stilted diction and lofty sense of civic duty. Her mother, Frances Finch Lee, also known as Miss Fanny, was overweight and emotionally fragile. Neighbors recalled her playing the piano for hours, fussing with her flower boxes and obsessively working crossword puzzles on the front porch. Truman Capote, a friend of Ms. Lee’s from childhood, later said that Nelle’s mother had tried to drown her in the bathtub on two occasions, an assertion that Ms. Lee indignantly denied.
Ms. Lee, like her alter ego Scout, was a tough little tomboy who enjoyed beating up the local boys, climbing trees and rolling in the dirt. “A dress on the young Nelle would have been as out of place as a silk hat on a hog,” recalled Marie Rudisill, Capote’s aunt, in her book “Truman Capote: The Story of His Bizarre and Exotic Boyhood by an Aunt Who Helped Raise Him.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was the first grown-up movie my parents took me to see, it was on my summer reading list for Grade 9, and of course it was the automatic choice when I first taught high school English. Every writer, I think, secretly harbors the wish that they could paint so delicate a portrait of life and character as she did.