Skip to main content

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Review

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

I had reviewed the first edition of Charles J. Shields’ illuminating biography of Harper Lee when it originally published back in 2006. Who could have imagined the incredible events that would transpire in the intervening decade? Shields returns to his enigmatic subject to shed light on the guarded author and the unbelievable events that led to the discovery and publication of a long-lost manuscript. 

Since its initial publication in 1960, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD has sold about 40 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 in 2003, its lead character, Atticus Finch, was hailed by the American Film Institute as the “greatest hero in a hundred years of American film history.” With this enormous success, one question always lingered: Will Harper Lee ever write another book? That question was answered in 2015.

Digging 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 (the model for Atticus Finch), 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), who became the inspiration for Dill in the famed novel. Lee was to join the family firm as well, but once she worked on the literary magazine at the University of Alabama, she knew that her greatest dream was to go to New York, much like Truman did, and become a writer.

"Given the limits of information and access, Shields does an admirable job of illuminating a writer who shunned the limelight."

During her early days in New York, Lee worked many jobs to pay the bills and tried to fit in her writing on the side, which made the process of penning a novel a long and laborious one. Had it not been for the generous financial gift from her friends, Michael and Joy Brown --- enough money to enable Lee to take a year off from work to focus solely on writing --- TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD might never have existed. For 10 years, Lee had slowly assembled a story based on her youth in Monroeville that originally had been titled “Go Set a Watchman” and laterAtticus.”With the assistance of agent Maurice Crain, and her new editor at Lippincott & Co., Tay Hohoff, Lee was able to craft the story of racial injustice in the Depression-era South, as seen through the eyes of an innocent child, which was published in 1960 to immediate acclaim.

Just before its publication, Lee accepted an offer from Capote 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 the effect that a heinous act of violence can have on a small town and its inhabitants, but it soon became more. Although he politely thanked Lee 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 that Capote never gave Lee her proper due. If it wasn'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 that Capote wrote most of TO KILL A 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 relationship was never the same. 

Still, 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 had 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. 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.”

Which is why the discovery and publication of the original manuscript for the early version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, then titled “Go Set a Watchman,” is so surprising. After her original literary agents died, and wrestling back the copyright for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD from a devious representative, Lee’s rights had been looked after by Tonya Carter, a young lawyer at the firm headed by Lee’s sister, Alice. There are disputes over the exact timeline, but many feel that the timing of the discovery of this fabled manuscript, one that Lee admitted to forgetting about herself, coming on the heels of Alice’s death, her fiercest protector, was somewhat suspicious. And what’s even more confusing is why Lee would want her beloved character of Atticus Finch, crusader of justice for all, seen now as a seemingly racist curmudgeon. (His actual characterization in GO SET A WATCHMAN is not as intolerant as the media made him out to be; he’s more a product of his time.) Did the elderly author comply with the publication happily, or was she coerced by her representatives?

In this revised version of his New York Times bestseller, Shields fleshes out his informative biography of an enigmatic but influential writer, despite the fact that, until recent years, Lee was fiercely private and remained fairly silent (except in press releases assuring the public that she was fine and happy about WATCHMAN’s publication) up until her death in February 2016. She certainly never authorized or cooperated with any biographers. (Another lawsuit was brought about after the publication of Marja Mills’ THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR: Life with Harper Lee). Given the limits of information and access, Shields does an admirable job of illuminating a writer who shunned the limelight.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on April 28, 2016

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
by Charles J. Shields

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2017
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 1250097711
  • ISBN-13: 9781250097712