The world bids goodbye to literary legends Harper Lee and Umberto Eco


The world lost two of the great literary figures of the 20th century on one day, 19 February, when the deaths of Harper Lee and Umberto Eco were announced. 

Harper Lee, who was born and spent her life Monroeville in the American state of Alabama, passed in bed following a stroke aged 89. Miss Lee stunned the world with the release of ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’, a social commentary about racial injustice in America’s Deep South, in 1960.

The novel proved a critical and commercial success, selling 40 million copies worldwide and earning universal acclaim. ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ is widely said to be the best American novel of the 20th century, and is taught in many schools around the world.

Lee’s maiden novel was adapted into a feature film in 1962, starring Gregory Peck as the protagonist Atticus Finch. The film won three Oscars at the 35th Academy Awards, earning Peck a Best Actor award for his portrayal.

Harper Lee was reportedly extremely pleased with the film, and gave Peck a pocket watch which belonged to her father, the inspiration for the Atticus Finch character.

Only last year, having not published anything else since Mockingbird, a first draft of a sequel –  ‘Go Set A Watchman’ – was published in July. The novel was panned by critics and readers alike, as controversy raged over the altered characterisation of Atticus Finch as an avowed racist, at odds with the heroic lawyer in the first novel.

Harper Lee’s work, despite being based on such limited output, will be remembered as a towering contribution to the literary heritage  of the 20th century.

The second loss was Umberto Eco. The Italian author turned academic died in Milan, Italy, after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, at the age of 84. Eco gained success from his first novel ‘The Name of the Rose’, which was published in 1980 to rave reviews.

The novel is an intellectual mystery set in an Italian monastery in the 12th century in which a string of monks die under unusual circumstances. The 1986 film of the same name starred Sean Connery and a youthful Christian Slater, and was nominated for two BAFTAs, and won a César Award in France for Best Foreign Film.

Alongside his seven novels, Eco also published a wide array of non-fiction works, mostly concerned with semiotics, philosophy, and theological themes. Eco had been professor emeritus at the University of Bologna since 2008.

His final novel, ‘Numero Zero’ was released in 2015. The novel, set in 1992, is a scathing social satire depicting the culture of corruption in Milan, Italy.

Umberto Eco is survived by his wife, and two children.


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