Harper Lee, author of the classic novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," died peacefully Thursday night at the age of 89, according to her publisher.
"We are deeply saddened by the passing of our beloved author, Harper Lee," HarperCollins said in a statement Friday. AL.com was the first to report Lee's death.
Born Nelle Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize winner is a native of Monroeville, Alabama. According to HarperCollins, she attended Huntingdon College and the University of Alabama before moving in the 1950s to New York, where she spent much of her adult life. Both schools released statements Friday mourning Lee's death.
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President George W. Bush awarded her the Medal of Freedom in 2007, the same year Lee suffered a severe stroke that forced her return to Monroeville.
"Harper Lee was ahead of her time, and her masterpiece 'To Kill A Mockingbird' prodded America to catch up with her," Bush said in a statement Friday, later adding, "Laura and I are grateful for Harper Lee and her matchless contributions to humanity and to the character of our country."
Lee spent her final days in an assisted-living facility in Monroeville, which inspired the fictional town where her novels are set, NBC News reports. The office of Monroeville Mayor Mike Kennedy confirmed Lee's death Friday but declined to comment further out of respect for her family.
"The world knows Harper Lee was a brilliant writer but what many don’t know is that she was an extraordinary woman of great joyfulness, humility and kindness," HarperCollins President Michael Morrison said in a statement Friday. "She lived her life the way she wanted to — in private — surrounded by books and the people who loved her. I will always cherish the time I spent with her."
Lee's agent, Andrew Nurnberg, called his relationship with the author "an utter delight" and "extraordinary privilege."
"When I saw her just six weeks ago, she was full of life, her mind and mischievous wit as sharp as ever. ... We have lost a great writer, a great friend and a beacon of integrity," he said in a statement.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is among the most beloved novels in history, with worldwide sales topping 40 million copies. It was released on July 11, 1960, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was adapted the following year into a movie of the same name, starring Gregory Peck in an Oscar-winning performance as the courageous attorney Atticus Finch.
Widely praised as a sensitive portrait of racial tension as seen through the eyes of a child in 1930s Alabama, it also has been criticized as sentimental and paternalistic. Although occasionally banned over the years because of its language and racial themes, the novel has become a standard for reading clubs and middle schools and high schools.
Lee herself became more mysterious as "Mockingbird" became more famous. At first, she dutifully promoted her work. She spoke frequently to the press, wrote about herself and gave speeches, once to a class of cadets at West Point.
But she began declining interviews in the late 1960s and, until late in her life, firmly avoided making any public comment at all about her novel or her career. Other than a few magazine pieces for Vogue and McCall's in the 1960s and a review of a 19th-century Alabama history book in 1983, she published no other book until stunning the world in 2015 by permitting "Go Set a Watchman" to be released.
The 304-page book was Lee's second, and her first new work in more than 50 years. "Watchman" was written before "Mockingbird" but was set 20 years later, using the same location and many of the same characters. Readers and reviewers were disheartened to find an Atticus who seemed nothing like the hero of the earlier book. The man who defied the status quo in "Mockingbird" was now part of the mob in "Watchman," denouncing the Supreme Court's ruling that school segregation was unconstitutional and denouncing blacks as unfit to enjoy full equality.
Its publication incited debate in Monroeville, where some claimed Lee would have published "Watchman" years ago had she wanted to share it with the world. Her lawyer, however, said Lee was "alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions of 'Watchman,'" according to NBC News.
Despite unenthusiastic reviews and questions whether Lee was well enough to approve its publication, "Watchman" jumped to the top of best-seller lists within a day of its announcement and remained there for months.
"She's arguably one of the most important American novelists of the post-war period who has not published a great deal," said Tom Lecky, Christie's head of books and manuscripts, when six of Lee's handwritten letters were set for auction over the summer.
Ari Mason contributed to this report.