NEW YORK • US political and cultural figures yesterday mourned the death of author Harper Lee, one of the country's most celebrated novelists, who died on Friday at age 89 in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama. They credited her with helping to promote tolerance, quoting her with admiration in social media and formal statements.
Lee's 1960 book To Kill A Mockingbird, about racism and injustice in the US South, is a classic of American literature.
Drawn from her own experiences as a child, it came to define racial injustice in the Depression-era South. It tells the story of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman and the courageous lawyer, Atticus Finch, who defies his community to defend him.
The novel sold 30 million copies and earned Lee huge critical acclaim, winning her a Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and thrusting her into an avalanche of publicity. The novel was adapted into a Hollywood film which won three Oscars in 1963, including the best actor award for Gregory Peck for his portrayal of Finch, one of the best-loved characters in American fiction.
"Harper Lee was ahead of her time, and her masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird prodded America to catch up with her," said former president George W. Bush, whose wife Laura is a former librarian. Mr Bush, who awarded Lee a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, said she had been a voice for tolerance.
Kentucky senator Rand Paul and Senator Richard Shelby from Lee's home state of Alabama, both Republicans, praised her as a great author.
"I join Alabamians and all Americans in mourning the passing of Harper Lee," Mr Shelby said in a statement. And Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said "it is because of Harper Lee that the world knows about her special home town of Monroeville".
The governor also noted in his statement the celebration in Alabama after the publication last year of Lee's second novel, Go Set A Watchman, 55 years after the first.
Admirers of Lee took to Twitter to post quotes from the author, with novelist Erica Jong and Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook among them.
"Rest in peace, Harper Lee. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience," Mr Cook wrote. Hollywood celebrities also expressed shock and sadness at Lee's death.
"Oh no. The great Harper Lee has passed away," actress Debra Messing said on Twitter. "She changed the world with To Kill A Mockingbird."
Actor Josh Gad tweeted that To Kill A Mockingbird was the first book he remembers reading cover- to-cover. "It propelled me towards my love for lit," he said.
Publisher HarperCollins said Lee was not only a brilliant writer, but also "an extraordinary woman of great joyfulness, humility and kindness" who lived as she wanted - "in private - surrounded by books and the people who loved her".
In a rare insight, the novelist admitted in 1964 that she had been completely caught off guard by being catapulted into the nation's consciousness by her novel.