Since its initial publication in 1960, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD has sold over 30 million copies worldwide and continues to sell almost a million annually. It is taught in 74% of schools across the country. Its film adaptation is heralded as one of the finest movies of all time and its lead character, Atticus Finch, was hailed by the American Film Institute as the "greatest hero in a hundred years of American film history" in 2003. With this enormous success, why then is so little known about its author, Harper Lee? And why has she never published another book? Through much research, journalist Charles J. Shields attempts to illuminate the enigmatic woman born Nelle Harper Lee in this extensive new biography.
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 on January 7, 2011