Saturday, July 21, 2018
Books

Author deaths in 2016: Harper Lee sadly sour, Jim Harrison sweetly right

For the literary world, 2016 did not bring such shocking losses as those that hit music and other arts.

Certainly, a number of major writers died last year, among them Edward Albee, one of America's greatest playwrights; accomplished novelists Pat Conroy, Umberto Eco, Shirley Hazzard and William Trevor; and children's author Natalie Babbitt.

But those splendid writers were all in their 70s or older, and some were known to be in declining health, so their passing didn't surprise and dismay us in the way that, for example, the death of Prince did.

There are two writers, though, whose deaths this year resonated with me and with many other fans — one writer whose life ended on a sadly sour note, and one whose death seemed like he had written it himself.

When Harper Lee died in February at age 89, she was among the most read and beloved of American authors. Since its publication in 1960, her novel To Kill a Mockingbird had become a classic, selling more than 40 million copies and inspiring several generations of readers with its story of the light and dark sides of small-town Southern life.

It was her only book, and for decades Lee, who was a resolutely private person, said she wouldn't publish another. But in 2015, not long after the death of the older sister who had long been her attorney, a "new novel" by Lee was announced.

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Published in July 2015, Go Set a Watchman turned out to be the first draft of a book that had been rejected by her publisher in 1957; Lee mined a small section of it to create Mockingbird a few years later. Watchman depicts Scout Finch, the child narrator of Mockingbird, as a young adult and her father, Atticus, as a stereotypical Southern racist.

Lee's new attorney, Tonja Carter, claimed to have found the manuscript in an undisclosed location and to have arranged its publication with Lee's consent. At that point, Lee had been living in a nursing home since a stroke in 2007 and was mostly blind and deaf, and her participation in the book's publication was widely questioned.

Watchmen became the bestselling book of 2015, selling 1.6 million copies despite lukewarm-to-negative reviews and expressions of distress from many readers for whom Atticus had been a heroic figure.

After Lee's death, Carter, the trustee of her estate (estimated at tens of millions of dollars; Lee never married and had no children), had Lee's will sealed.

It was a sad coda. Lee could have been a far richer woman but chose privacy and independence over financial gain. She deserved better than to have her final months tainted by the possibility of exploitation.

Another great American writer, Jim Harrison, died in March at age 78. As prolific as Lee was spare, Harrison wrote dozens of novels, novellas, nonfiction works and poetry collections and worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter and script doctor.

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A charming raconteur and an avid gourmand, hunter and fisherman, Harrison wrote beautifully about the natural world and the human heart in such memorable books as Legends of the Fall, Dalva and Brown Dog.

In his 70s, he was turning out one or two books per year, their quality undiminished. His most recent novella collection, The Ancient Minstrel, was published on March 1. Harrison presents the title novella as a kind of memoir, writing that he had tried to write one once before when he thought he wouldn't live long.

"Time told another story and over fifteen years later I'm still not dead, a fine surprise for a poet who presumed he'd die young in a pile on the house floor," he wrote.

On March 25, at his home in the southern Arizona desert, just one of the landscapes he dearly loved, he was found dead — not young, but on the floor of his little adobe house — from heart failure. An unfinished poem was on his desk, his pen in his hand. Happy trails, Brown Dog.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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