For many, Lee's 'Mockingbird' is South's best tale

Nelle Harper Lee of Monroeville, Ala., published two books in her long life, the second a half-century after the first. One has drawn mixed reviews and controversy. The other, 1960's Pulitzer Prize-winning "To Kill a Mockingbird," is a classic of American literature and one of the most beloved stories in the canon of Southern culture.

Lee, whose death at 89 was confirmed Friday by her publisher, became known almost as much for her J.D. Salinger-like reclusiveness as for her masterpiece, set in Depression-era Alabama and told from the first-person perspective of Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, one of attorney Atticus Finch's two children.

Unlike Salinger, Lee didn't withdraw from public view; she remained a familiar figure around Monroeville, and would on occasion make a public appearance to accept honorary recognition. But beyond thanking the audience, she had little or nothing to say -- which made last year's out-of-the-blue publication of a "Mockingbird" sequel (though actually written earlier) titled "Go Set a Watchman" a stunner in more ways than one.

Still, it is "To Kill a Mockingbird" that for many readers is the definitive, affectionate yet unblinking portrait of life and death in the small-town South.

Its depiction of race relations falls between the 19th century horror of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the idealized, paternalistic, soft-focus rose tinting of slavery in Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind." The novel does not gloss over ugly truths: The Bob Ewells in our midst are every bit as real as, and considerably more plentiful than, the Atticuses and Calpurnias and Maudie Atkinsons; and justice is not blind -- especially not colorblind. But the book has also been, in the almost 56 years since its publication, many readers' first vivid and memorable departure from a fictional South too often peopled exclusively and stereotypically by terrified, cringing, abjectly poor black people and sweaty redneck lynch mobs.

One of Lee's childhood friends in Monroeville was a youngster named Truman Persons -- later to become famous as Truman Capote -- who, passed around among relatives, spent some of his summers in the home next door to Lee's; he would be immortalized in "Mockingbird" as the diminutive and imaginative Dill Harris.

But Harper Lee also played a crucial role in Capote's own seminal work, "In Cold Blood." When Capote, writing for the New Yorker, conceived a book about the brutal 1959 murders of a Midwestern farm family, Lee accompanied him to Kansas. Her understated Southern manners gained the pair access to and trust of local residents for whom Capote's demonstratively effeminate mannerisms would have been off-putting in early 1960s Middle America.

Artistic immortality is not necessarily synonymous with prolific output. If Twain had written nothing but "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" it would still be a classic.

Harper Lee gave us "To Kill a Mockingbird." With her passing, countless readers will pick it up again and rediscover its poignant beauty.