Monday, April 02, 2007

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Charles J. Shields got off to a slow start in Mockingbird but readers who suffered through the rather mind-numbing first chapter were rewarded with an intriguing Nelle Harper Lee biography that got stronger and stronger as each chapter unfolded. Shields managed to give insights into Harper Lee, the woman, despite the fact that her public life and career have been limited to relatively few milestones, events that her admirers find interesting even today.

Nelle grew up in the small Alabama town of Monroeville where she was much like the tomboyish character Scout who was the central figure in her masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird. After high school she went on to Huntingdon College and, under pressure from her father, later studied law at the University of Alabama but did not graduate. Nelle was determined to become a writer and left law school to move to New York so that she could concentrate on that.

The events that define the public Harper Lee all started to happen around 1960 and they make up the heart of the book:
• Publication and immediate success of To Kill a Mockingbird

• Her intimate involvement in the research for In Cold Blood with her oldest friend in the world, Truman Capote

• Filming of To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck

• Her disappearance from public view and lack of a second novel
Nelle Harper Lee was very fortunate to find, early on, a gifted and patient editor in the person of Tay Hohoff who worked with her through the numerous drafts required to transform Nelle's stories into the unified novel that they ultimately became. Within just a few weeks of publication, To Kill a Mockingbird was on the top ten lists of both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune and had become a Reader's Digest Condensed Book (considered quite an honor in those days).

While all this was happening, Nelle was helping her childhood friend and neighbor, Truman Capote, do the Kansas research required for the creation of his own masterpiece, In Cold Blood. In fact, it is unlikely that Capote would have been able to write such a groundbreaking work if Nelle Lee had not made herself available to serve as his "assistant" in Garden City, Kansas. Truman Capote did not have the kind of personality or presence that went over well in rural Kansas and without Nelle there to open doors for him with her graceful southern personality and temperament he would have been unable to gather the inside information that makes In Cold Blood so special. Sadly enough, all of the help that Nelle gave Capote did not exempt her in later years from being treated with the same contempt and lack of respect with which he treated all of his supposed friends.

The chapter on the filming of To Kill a Mockingbird provides interesting insights into the personality of Gregory Peck and how he came to truly love Nelle Lee, remaining a friend of hers for the rest of his life, and is filled with stories and bits of gossip regarding most of the key members of the cast. Monroeville, Alabama, of the 1960s looked little like the Monroeville of the 1930s but such great care was taken to recreate the older version of Monroeville (even to taking exact measurements in the old court room) that many casual viewers of the movie assume that it was shot on location there.

The last chapters offered up by Shields attempt to explain the great mystery of why Nelle never wrote even a second book. In Shields' estimation, the lack of succeeding books was caused by circumstances as much as anything else. To Kill a Mockingbird became such a money-making machine that Nelle lost several years in nurturing it as she traveled the country making personal appearances, working on the movie and winning prizes for the book, including the Pulitzer. As she once said, before she knew it, she had lost a decade. More importantly, she seemed to feel the pressure of trying to measure up to the quality of her first novel to such an extent that she lost confidence in her ability to ever do so. She was a slow writer, by nature, and that in combination with the pressure to top one of the most popular books in the history of world literature may have been too much for her. After losing her agents and editor to death or retirement, she finally resigned herself to the fact that it was not going to happen and decided to return to the simple life she most preferred anyway.

Considering the fact that Nelle Harper Lee refused to participate in the writing of Mockingbird (as she has refused all interviews for the last several decades), Charles Shields has done a remarkable job of providing some perspective to a writer who has done her best to avoid publicity for most of her life.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. Thanks for this review, Sam! I just read To Kill A Mockingbird and found the information you included here to be very informative. :)

  2. Harper Lee is a fascinating lady, Wendy, and I enjoyed learning so much about her personality and difficult relationship with Truman Capote. I was most surprised by her wit and sense of humor, I think.

  3. Sam!
    This book is on its way to being sent to me.... a SIGNED copy.
    A friend of mine just recently attended a reading, by the author, in Illinois. She got me a signed copy.
    And she's been telling me about the book.
    It sounds fascinating, both from her report, and from yours.
    I look forward to it.

  4. Nice one to have, Cip, congrats. I noticed that the author is on a book tour right now because of the recent release of the paperback version of the book but I don't think he's coming anywhere near Houston. Enjoy the book...