Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee Hardcover – May 30 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Few novels are as beloved and acclaimed as To Kill a Mockingbird and even fewer authors have shunned the spotlight as successfully as its author. Although journalist Shields interviewed 600 of Harper Lee's acquaintances and researched the papers of her childhood friend Truman Capote, he is no match for the elusive Lee, who stopped granting interviews in 1965 and wouldn't talk to him. Much of this first full-length biography of Lee is filled with inconsequential anecdotes focusing on the people around her, while the subject remains stubbornly out of focus. Shields enlivens Lee's childhood by pointing out people who were later fictionalized in her novel. The book percolates during her banner year of 1960, when she won the Pulitzer Prize and helped Capote research In Cold Blood. Capote's papers yield some of Lee's fascinating first-person insights on the emotionally troubled Clutter family that were tempered in his book. Shields believes Lee abandoned her second novel when her agents and her editor—her surrogate family in publishing—died or left the business, leaving her with no support system. There's a tantalizing anecdote about a true-crime project Lee was researching in the mid-'80s that faded away. Sputtering to a close, the final chapter covers the last 35 years in 24 pages. It's also baffling that this affectionate biography ends with three paragraphs devoted to someone slamming her classic work. (June 6)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From School Library Journal
Adult/High School–Shields takes on the elusive writer in this first-ever biography of her. Without direct input from his subject, the author's extensive research combines sources in local-history collections, interviews and correspondence with Lee's acquaintances, and Internet resources to piece together the details of the writer's life. Starting with Lee's childhood in Monroeville, AL, Shields depicts the people and events that inspired To Kill a Mockingbird's characters. A picture develops of a girl who would face down any bully, a nonconformist whose sorority roommates kicked her out after one semester but who made an impact on the campus with her presence, a woman with a wicked sense of humor and a writer with a voice and themes of prejudice and justice that resonate. Students and curious fans alike will find material here to further their understanding of her work and life. Extensive source notes and a student-friendly bibliography are included.–Charlotte Bradshaw, San Mateo County Library, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Top Customer Reviews
I honour Shawn Goldwater's (from Quebec's) review...she said, " Let's all show that we really understood and cherished what she wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird and respect her wishes here. Lee is still alive and wants to be left in peace." I was lent this book by my sister and I couldn't put down. It is extraordinarily sensitive to Harper Lee's past and image. If anything it enhances "To Kill a Mockingbird" giving the reader a much clearer idea of the 'times' and of Harper Lees' intense need for privacy for herself and her family. Let your conscience be your guide!
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Delving into Lee's early years, from her beginnings in Monroeville, Alabama, we begin to see her earliest influences that would shape her career-defining work. Life at home included her father, A.C. Lee, the venerable attorney and newspaperman (he was the model for Atticus), her depressed and remote mother, a brother who would die in the war, and her headstrong older sister, Alice, who worked as an attorney at the family firm. Many long afternoons were spent making up stories with her pixie-like neighbor and playmate, Truman Persons (later Truman Capote). Lee was to join the family firm as well, but once she worked on the literary magazine at the University of Alabama, she knew her greatest dream was to go to New York, much like her friend Truman did, and become a writer.
From her early days in New York, working many jobs to pay the bills and attempting to write on the side, a portrait of the author starts to take shape through older interviews given by Lee (she had pretty much stopped giving interviews by 1964), documented research, such as the exhaustive Capote Papers from the New York Public Library, and correspondence with friends. Had it not been for a generous gift from her friends Michael and Joy Brown, MOCKINGBIRD might never have existed. Lee had been slowly assembling a story that at times had been called GO SET A WATCHMAN and then ATTICUS, but then the Browns gave her the gift of "one year off" so she could write her book: a gift she repaid to her generous friends once her first novel, now titled TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, was accepted by the publisher, Lippincott & Company.
During this time, she accepted her friend Truman Capote's offer to accompany him to Garden City, Kansas, in the capacity of "assistant researcher" while he wrote about the seemingly random murder of the Clutter family in rural Holcomb for The New Yorker. It was supposed to be about how a small town bears up after such a tragedy, but it soon became more. Once the killers were apprehended and Capote began to interview them, it became clear that he felt some sort of strange bond with Perry Smith, one of the killers --- a bond that one could argue was the beginning of the end for Capote. Although he politely thanked Nelle for her help and shared the dedication of what became the "nonfiction novel" IN COLD BLOOD with her and his longtime lover, Jack Dunphy, many felt Capote never gave Lee her proper due. If it weren't for her down-home charm and wit, making friends with the wives of important investigators on the case, the pair never would have gained the access that enabled Capote to write such a compelling tome. And perhaps later on, when she was being heralded as the next literary beacon, there was a twinge of jealousy on Capote's part.
Even when rumors surfaced claiming Capote wrote most of MOCKINGBIRD for Lee, he never strenuously denied them. (Shields points out that the many letters between Lee and her agents and editor categorically quash those rumors as well as the simple fact that Capote was not known for keeping secrets. If he had indeed written the book, once it became a bestseller, he would have been the first to admit it. Given all the research it seems clear that Capote read it and offered some advice on where it could be edited.) After the IN COLD BLOOD years, the two remained friends but their friendship was never the same.
But nothing, not even her close friendship with Capote, could have prepared Lee for literary superstardom. Perhaps she lacked the naked ambition of her old playmate. A somewhat quiet individual to begin with (although friends say she has a wicked sense of humor), the glare of the media spotlight, the endless interviews and the pressure for a new book overwhelmed her. She bristled at the constant attention and scrutiny and retreated more and more to life as a private citizen, dividing her time between New York and her family home in Monroeville, which she still does to this day. When asked by a young relative why she had never written another book, she confided, "When you're at the top there's only one way to go."
In MOCKINGBIRD, Shields has assembled quite an informative biography of an enigmatic but truly influential writer, despite the fact that Lee herself has chronically shunned any offers for interviews throughout the years. It's hard to paint an accurate portrait when the subject won't sit for the painter. But given that fact, Shields does an admirable job of illuminating a writer who shuns the limelight. He clearly demonstrates just how much her sole work has contributed to American literature as we know it but also highlights her important contribution to Capote's IN COLD BLOOD.
Given his obvious affection for the author and the many years spent researching her, it is peculiar that Shields chooses to end the biography on a sour note, with a representative from the Equal Justice Initiative essentially denouncing the novel's importance. But since Lee has never authorized nor is likely to ever authorize her own biography, no one can truly know her. MOCKINGBIRD: A Portrait of Harper Lee is the closest we've come so far.
--- Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller
For one thing, I had always thought that Harper Lee was a lawyer and that was one of the reasons she hadn't written anything since TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. She did go to law school, but dropped out with a semester left to go to New York to write full time.
Shields focuses on several questions. Why did Lee not follow up the amazing success of TKAM with another novel? Did Truman Capote really write the book? Why did Nelle Harper Lee never marry?
To answer the first, she had a hundred pages of a second novel before TKAM was published, but several factors intruded on its completion. One was her obligation to promote the novel and later the movie. The second was her collaboration with Truman Capote on IN COLD BLOOD, which also answers the second question. Nelle Harper contributed more to IN COLD BLOOD than Truman Capote did TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Why she never married is inconclusive; Capote said she had a love affair with a law professor during her college years; Shields also hints that there may have been a romantic relationship with her married agent, Maurice Crain, but there's no doubt she was a tomboy and an eccentric well into her college years and never had much interest in men.
Personally, I found the section on IN COLD BLOOD most compelling. The people around Garden City and Holcomb, Kansas, found Truman Capote about as easy to like as an alien from another planet. Nelle made friends and smoothed the way for his interviews. She also took copious notes.
Another interesting element was the apparent biographical content of her novel. Dill was definitely Truman Capote, who lived right next door in Monroeville, Alabama. There was a real Boo Radley; Atticus, of course, was based on her father, A.C.; Aunt Alexandra was modeled after her mother. The name Finch came from her mother's maiden name. Then there's the movie. Originally, Nelle wanted Spencer Tracy to play Atticus. It's also interesting to see how the focus of the movie changed from the children to Atticus and the Tom Robinson trial.
A shortcoming of the book is that Shields was never able to find out what the supposed second novel was about. Lee also tried to write a non-fiction book based on insurance scam murders where the man who committed them kept getting off. Shields says that the book was supposedly in production, but nothing ever came of it. Shields is forced to rely on a lot of hearsay because of Nelle's reluctance to be interviewed. For instance, a family member said that the second book was stolen during a burglary, and Nelle didn't have the heart to start over again.
For me, it was most instructive to follow Lee's early years in New York. Eventually she met the right people, Maurice Cain and her editor from Lippincott, but she spent almost ten years working as an airline ticket agent and fumbling with a series of sketches about Monroeville before Theresa von Hohoff whipped her project into shape. Not surprisingly, when von Hohoff and Cain died, Lee completely lost her will to pursue her literary ambitions
Truth be told, I easily fall into that category as well. First assigned to me as a high school reading requirement in my sophomore Honors English class, little do I remember of the intial experience of first entering Maycomb, and spending some quality time with her residents. I remember a 50 question test at the end of the book which nitpicked certain details to death to prove whether or not we read it. It wasn't until I turned 30 again that I revisted this book, and reread as an adult, without a looming test in my mind, that I truly entered Maycomb, and met Scout, Jem, Atticus, and I daresay, felt the book. Now, I reread Mockingbird about once a year, re-watch the film once a year (it, too, is one of my all-time favorite flickers), and let its lessons wash over me like the mighty Mississippi.
I've always been hungry for information on Harper Lee, real name Nell. I knew she lives life in Monroeville, AL, doesn't talk to anyone about her book, and never wrote another. I knew about a possible law school background, and a few short stories. I thought that Atticus was modeled on her own father. Beyond that, I yearned to know more about this very private woman, possibly just to know how she produced the most important book written in the twentieth century. Charles Shields' new book attempts to do that, in a not necessarily biography, but portrait, of Harper Lee.
Shields' task is daunting, as he readily admits early on. Little information exists that is new on Lee, and Sheild's takes from whatever he can to compose his book. As he admits, this information is hardly new, so he relies heavily on old friends, aquaintances, and people who knew Nelle to build on his story. Like the docents of Monroeville that work extremely hard to protect Nelle's privacy, that information is somewhat scant, and not very revealing.
He slowly builds his story from her childhood, as it is clear that's what the majority of his fact finding lies. By the time Nelle reaches New York, we're about almost halfway through the tome. He addresses what he can about how she came to write Mockingbird, but again, scant for this reader hungry to know more. By the time Mockingbird approaches its final form, Shields switches to Truman Capote's intial research into his amazing book, "In Cold Blood", and Nelle's role in that project. By the time you finish reading that, the remaining years of Nelle's life, up untiil her 80th birthday, fly by with a quick blink.
But you know what? I loved every minute of it. Why? Again, back to the hunger. Mockingbird affects my life daily, my interaction with people, how I view the world. Of course I want to know how this woman created the seminal masterpiece of the last 100 years. Any information is welcome, including, this sketchy portrait.
However, it's clear that Nelle wishes privacy, that's she has said all that she probably will say about Mockingbird. She believes the book stands on its own, and says what it says about what it says. I respect that. In our mass media, video dominated "standing in the eye of the hurricane", 24 hour news world we live in, that is a trait to be respected and admired. And as much as I would love to know more about Nelle and her fabulous book, in reality, all I would ever want to say to her is two simple words: thank you.
I believe the strong women I knew growing up would have reacted to fame and fortune much in the same way Lee did. They would have rather died than have their hometown descended upon by tourists. They would have refused interviews. They would have not spoiled the mystery. They wouldn't have liked all the fuss and bother. They would have rather been tending their flower beds or reading into the night.
Charles Shields does a good job in trying to capture the essence of Nelle Lee. I loved the backstories and the quotes and having seen the movie CAPOTE, I really appreciated his shining a light on that part of Lee's life. I can't imagine how much material he had to sift through to get 285 pages to print. His footnotes are meticulous.
However, the book is missing something. She didn't give many interviews after the book's publication, so there's not much to dig into regarding her motivation, voice, etc. Sheilds wrote it without Lee's cooperation, so it must have been difficult to get a handle on what she was thinking when she wrote her masterpiece. We will never know why there wasn't a second book. Maybe if the press and her peers had left her alone, she would have published more. Or, maybe it's like she is quoted, "I said everything I had to say."
It doesn't matter. Harper Lee has left us a rich legacy. Isn't that enough?
I was fascinated with details about the lifelong, but difficult friendship with Truman Capote, and their collaboration (and the huge role Lee played) in writing "In Cold Blood." After seeing Lee's protrayal in the film, Capote, you'll have no choice but to pick up the book and find out more about this fascinating woman. The details of their younger years certainly inspired one of the best "teams" in literature, Scout and Dill.
I have to admit, I am not a typical biography reader - I generally prefer fiction - but this book kept me up late reading and gave me a new appreciation for "To Kill a Mockingbird." I highly recommend it.