Tributes pour in for 'treasured' Harper Lee

Tributes pour in for 'treasured' Harper Lee

Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was buried over the weekend in a private ceremony in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

The author, aged 89, died peacefully in her sleep on Friday morning (19th February), her family said in a statement. A spokesperson for the family called her passing "unexpected", as well as a "sad day". She was in "in good basic health until her passing", they said.

The ceremony took place at First United Methodist Church on Saturday (20th February), with Wayne Flynt, a history professor and long-time friend, eulogising. Lee was laid to rest alongside her father and sister, Alice Lee at their family plot afterwards.

Her agent Andrew Nurnberg said: "Knowing Nelle these past few years has been not just for us a delight but an extraordinary privilege. When I saw her just six weeks ago, she was full of life, her mind and mischievous wit as sharp as ever. She was quoting Thomas More and setting me straight on Tudor history. We have lost a great writer, a great friend and a beacon of integrity."

Harper Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, Alabama, where she attended Huntingdon College and studied law at the University of Alabama. She received numerous literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

To Kill a Mockingbird, a story of racial intolerance in the Deep South, was published in 1960 by William Heinemann in the UK and by Lippincott in the US and won the Pulitzer two years later. After decades in which no subsequent novel appeared, her “surprise second novel”, Go Set a Watchman, featuring some of the same characters, was published last year on 14th July by Penguin Random House UK and HarperCollins in the US simulataneously. It set a new record for the number of copies sold at US chain Barnes & Noble stores in one day, while in the UK it shifted over 105,000 copies in first-day sales, according to PRH.

Lee's publishers have said it was an "honour" and "privilege" to work with the writer.

Tom Weldon, c.e.o. of Penguin Random House UK, said: “We are honoured to have been Harper Lee’s publisher and so saddened to hear of her passing.  She was an extraordinary writer and readers around the world will always be thankful for her legacy.”

Susan Sandon, divisional managing director, said: "I am deeply saddened, as her millions of readers will be, to learn of Nelle Harper Lee’s passing. I am honoured to have been her publisher and feel privileged to have met with her. Our sympathies are extended to her family."

Jason Arthur, publisher of William Heinemann, Hutchinson and Windmill, added that his sympathies went out to Lee's many friends in Monroeville and to her family, while, Michael Morrison, president and publisher of HarperCollins US General Books Group and Canada said that what many people didn't know was that Lee was an "extraordinary woman of great joyfulness, humility and kindness".

"She lived her life the way she wanted to - in private - surrounded by books and the people who loved her," he said. "I will always cherish the time I spent with her.”

Actress Reese Witherspoon, who narrated the audiobook of Go Set a Watchman, said on Instagram: "[Lee] never shielded us from the divisive attitudes running rampant through our beloved society. I feel so incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to read and give voice to Harper Lee's brilliant words."

Booksellers joined in the tributes to Lee. Foyles marketing manager Simon Heafield commented: "To Kill a Mockingbird is a book that defined the 20th Century, and has been treasured by millions around the world. It's deeply sad that Harper Lee, a true original, has left us, but her work will surely continue to move and inspire readers for decades and even centuries to come.”

Chris White, Waterstones Fiction Buyer, meanwhile, said: “Enormously sad to hear of the death of Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird spoke for a generation and inspired millions. It was entirely fitting that, with the publication of Go Set a Watchman towards the end of her life, she was able to experience a second flurry of adulation and to cement her status as one of the greatest writers of our age.”

Peter Donaldson of The Red Lion Bookshop in Colchester told The Bookseller: "She was just a very remarkable writer - she kept such a low profile despite the fact she must have had an enormous number of requests [for interviews and appearances], though she was quite active in her local community in Alabama in the 1970s and 80s. The book was such a landmark of 20th century literature, it is really suprising that someone with such a talent to weave a story never really followed that book up - except for Go Set a Watchman. That book will never detract from To Kill a Mockingbird, though it is sad in a way that there is that uncertainty over her wishes [in publishing it] in the last year of her life [when questions were raised over her consent to publishing GSAW, vigorously rebutted by Nurnberg]. But it got to be a bestseller, plenty of people leapt on it, it was a big talking-point and led so many people back to To Kill a Mockingbird."

Vivian Archer of Newham Books in East London, said: "It’s very sad. But a long life, and she made the most amazing contribution to literature, with particularly To Kill a Mockingbird which still sells as if it were published yesterday. Her legacy is one of the great works of literature. And so many people have said because of reading that book, often in school where it’s been a set text, that they decided to become lawyers.:

Tim West of The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green, North London, added: "She wrote one great, great book, one of the best books of the 20th century, and it's studied by students throughout England, it's still very popular and still poignant - which is why it was such a shame that Go Set a Watchman was not as good and threw a little shadow on the character of Atticus [famous for his enlightened attitude to race in To Kill a Mockingbird, but presented very differently in GSAW] ." 

West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin last week announced he was adapting To Kill a Mockingbird for Broadway for the 2017-18 season. Sorkin told the Guardian: “Like millions of others, I was saddened to learn this morning of the passing of Harper Lee, one of America’s most beloved authors.”

“I’m honored to have the opportunity to adapt her seminal novel for the stage,” he added.

Tributes have continued to pour in from across the author community, the media and even presidents.

Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love (Picador) and associate editor at The Bookseller, said: "Harper Lee was as astonishing person and writer and To Kill A Mockingbird is without doubt one of the most important and well-loved books in the history of the world. It’s sad to see her life come to an end, though I wouldn’t be completely surprised if another manuscript surfaced to give us another chapter in this most novelistic of lives."

Man and Boy (Harper) author, journalist and broadcaster Tony Parsons tweeted: "Harper Lee said more in one book than most of us manage in a lifetime."

President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle said in a statement said that when Harper Lee sat down to write To Kill a Mockingbird, "she wasn’t seeking awards or fame".

"She was a country girl who just wanted to tell an honest story about life as she saw it," they said. "But what that one story did, more powerfully than one hundred speeches possibly could, was change the way we saw each other, and then the way we saw ourselves. Through the uncorrupted eyes of a child, she showed us the beautiful complexity of our common humanity, and the importance of striving for justice in our own lives, our communities, and our country.”