The Measure Of Harper Lee: A Life Shaped By A Towering Text : The Two-Way The author, who died Friday at 89, lived for decades in the shadow of her iconic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet there was more to Lee than her characters, however beloved they may remain.
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The Measure Of Harper Lee: A Life Shaped By A Towering Text

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

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

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Harper Lee, whose novel "To Kill A Mockingbird" touched millions of readers, died in her sleep this morning. She was 89 years old. Lee's family said she had been in good health, and her death was unexpected. "To Kill A Mockingbird" won the Pulitzer Prize after it was published in 1960. Lee avoided publicity, but was thrust back into the spotlight last summer when her controversial book "Go Set A Watchman" was released. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When "To Kill A Mockingbird" was about to be published, Harper Lee's editor cautioned the first-time novelist not to get too excited.

CHARLES SHIELDS: And she counseled her client, Harper Lee, saying that if we sell 2,500 copies and break even, you should be proud.

NEARY: Charles Shields is the author of "Mockingbird: A Portrait Of Harper Lee." Lee's first novel was an immediate hit and has since sold some 40 million copies around the world. It's the story of a small-town Alabama lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman. It's told her the eyes of the lawyer's 9-year-old daughter, Scout. Shields says "To Kill A Mockingbird" was published at just the right moment.

SHIELDS: In 1960, on the cusp of the civil rights movement, a book like that touched the hearts of people, whereas anything more strident would have been rejected. The reason that "To Kill A Mockingbird" engaged us was because it made us laugh and think about ourselves, and it makes you wonder what you stand for and how far you'd go in defending what's right.

NEARY: Harper Lee was shocked by her book's success, as she told an interviewer at WQXR radio in 1964.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARPER LEE: Well, my reaction to it was not one of surprise. It was one of sheer numbness. It was one of being hit over the head and knocked cold.

NEARY: The book's success was magnified many times a couple of years later, when it became a film starring Gregory Peck as the lawyer Atticus Finch.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD")

GREGORY PECK: (As Atticus Finch) I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and our jury system. That's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality.

NEARY: The film made Harper Lee even more famous, but she was not interested in the celebrity that came her way. For decades, she responded to entreaties for her next novel with silence. A kind of mythology grew around Lee, and the public began to think of her as a recluse. Lee's friend Wayne Flynt says that just wasn't the case.

WAYNE FLYNT: Many people describe her as an introvert. Many people explained her as being extremely shy. She was neither. She was a private woman.

NEARY: Although Lee moved back to her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., when she had got older and had suffered a stroke, she lived most of her life in New York City. Flynt says the anonymity of New York gave Lee the privacy she cherished. She was a big Mets fan and loved to be able to go out in public unnoticed. And Flynt says lee was a great friend with a wonderful sense of humor.

FLYNT: She was a good companion. I can't tell you how witty she was, how funny she was, how down-to-earth she was, how earthy she was. She had lots of people she adored.

NEARY: Lee might have lived her life out quietly in Monroeville, but last summer, a new Harper Lee novel was published, creating a storm of publicity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's being called the biggest literary surprise of the 21st century.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The frenzy over Harper Lee's novel "Go Set A Watchman..."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: "Go Set A Watchman" - this thing is incredibly controversial.

NEARY: As it turned out, "Go Set A Watchman" was not a second novel, but rather a first draft of "To Kill A Mockingbird." Readers were shocked to learn the adored Atticus Finch was depicted as a racist in the new book. And many question whether Lee was mentally competent enough to approve the publication of the novel. Mary Murphy, writer and director of the documentary "Harper Lee: Mockingbird To Watchman" was filming when lee was presented with a copy of "Go Set A Watchman."

MARY MURPHY: I was able to ask her one question. And my question was, did you ever intend to see this published? And she said to me, of course I did. Don't be silly.

NEARY: Murphy, who spent years researching Lee's life, didn't feel that answer settled the matter, and she didn't get a chance for a follow-up.

MURPHY: You know, it gave me a lot to think about, and I'm still thinking about it - you know, what her motivation was this time. And I think it's what everybody's puzzled about. I mean, I think some part of her may have been perfectly delighted to reveal her hometown, warts and all, in all the racist things that people were saying in the mid-'50s. There may have been some feisty part of her that enjoyed getting it out there.

NEARY: Harper Lee biographer Charles Shields is also left with many questions about what Lee might have wanted. But Shields says this book, too, came at a moment in history when the nation is once again reflecting on the role of race in our society.

SHIELDS: So I think the book is valuable in throwing cold water on any mythology that's come out of "To Kill A Mockingbird" of a white, paternalistic lawyer defending a black man in the '30s out of the goodness of his heart. It's much more complicated than that.

NEARY: The publication of "Go Set A Watchman" may force us to rethink the legacy of Harper Lee, Shields says. But it does not diminish her accomplishment nor the power of her books one bit. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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