This weekend marked a tragic time in the world of literature. Humans are no strangers to death, yet it always comes as such a sad shock when one learns that someone with real talent has passed on. Umberto Eco and Harper Lee both died on February 19th.
Harper Lee, famously known for her Pulitzer Prize winning book To Kill a Mockingbird and more recently for her lost Go Set A Watchman publication passed away on Friday morning at the age of 89.
Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926, in a little town called Monroeville in southern Alabama.
“Nelle” Harper Lee was one of four children. Her father, Amasa Coleman Lee was a prominent lawyer. Her father’s sense of civic duty was part of why Harper modeled her character Atticus Finch after him. Ms. Lee wrote herself into the book too in the form of Scout, a fun loving little tomboy who enjoyed climbing trees, rolling around in the dirt, and of course beating up local boys.
When she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird Nelle Harper Lee dropped the name she was given in honor of her maternal grandmother because she hated when people mispronounced it. Who can blame her there right? Anyway, Ms. Lee had notoriously dropped off the radar after To Kill a Mockingbird became widely popular, hating the fame that came with writing such a successful story. It had been said that she would never write anything else, intending to become something akin to the ‘Jane Austen of southern life literature’.
I’m sure we all remember the initial controversy that arose around this time last year when HarperCollins announced the finding of the ‘lost’ manuscript. The circumstances behind its discovery were called into question. Not the mention the likelihood of an 88-year-old stroke victim who was confined to an assisted living community not being taken advantage of seemed very, very slim. Her main protector, Alice Lee, had passed away back in November of 2014. Mere months later Harper, the same woman who hated the publicity from her first novel so much that she fled New York and returned to her hometown to live a private life, would agree to publish a second novel. It was quoted that she was “humbled and amazed” that it was deemed worthy of publication by “people I trust”. Seems suspicious, doesn’t it? The world agreed, and the controversy was wild, is still wild.
Despite it all, Nelle Harper Lee lived a long and relatively peaceful life. She accomplished what she intended to do while she was competent. She may have been taken advantage of in her later years, but sadly that is the world we live in today. When there is money to be made the amount of people you can truly trust dwindles. Harper Lee will be forever remembered for the classic that her original novel was, and the world will recognize her ‘sequel’ as what it is as well.
Harper Lee wasn’t the only author to pass on Friday. The world lost another literary genius; Umberto Eco, an Italian scholar of semiotics (which is the study and interpretation of cultures through their signs and symbols) and author of popular fiction titles such as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. Mr. Eco loved merging his academic interests with his fiction, and the results definitely speak for themselves.
His first novel is his bestselling. The Name of the Rose was written in 1980 and has been published in 30 languages. It was also adapted into a movie in 1986 that starred Sean Connery. His fiction titles usually have compelling stories that have a flair for action and intrigue.
Umberto, who was born back in 1932 in the northwest region of Italy, wrote from a young age. As a child, he would spend hours in his grandfather’s cellar reading through the man’s eclectic variety of novels and comics. Having lived during the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, Umberto began his writing career young; his first prize was in a writing competition for young fascists. After the war Mr. Eco became strongly attached to the Catholic church, completing a doctoral thesis in 1956 at the University of Turin on St. Thomas Aquinas. His academic career began when he moved on to teach philosophy and then semiotics at the University of Bologna. His popular writing career started around the same time as he authored a popular column in one of Italy’s leading pop culture and political magazines.
Mr. Eco has received Italy’s highest literary award, the Premio Strega. He was also named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government, and was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. These awards and honors are for both his academic and popular fiction writings. Umberto Eco was a model of writing in the sense that he proved that you could be successful in multiple fields. He did tend to make his scholarly peers uncomfortable with his pop culture celebrity. However Mr. Eco saw no contradiction in his dual status. “I think of myself as a serious professor who, during the weekend, writes novels,” he said.
Mr. Eco is, was, an aspiration to many writers, young and old. Both he and Ms. Lee model exemplary traits when it comes to the writing process as well as character traits, in terms of not letting fame or fortune inflate ones ego. The literary world will miss them, and we will always appreciate the impact that they have left on us. Harper Lee’s book is still used in classrooms across the country today, as well as globally, along with Mr. Eco’s novels. That they were taken on the same day does indeed make this day a sad day for the literary world.