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Mon June 1, 2009
Up Close: Harper Lee; A Twentieth-Century Life, by Kerry Madden
As the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, which has sold, as we all now know, over thirty million copies in forty languages, and may be the best selling American novel of all time, of course she deserves to be there. There is no question this is an intelligent, organized, respectable piece of work; the better question is whether this book ever needed to be written at all.
By Don Noble
The Viking Books "Up Close" volumes are young adult biographies of, what shall we call them, "notable" 20th century American lives. Harper Lee finds herself here in the company of Babe Ruth and Elvis and Oprah as well as John Steinbeck and Robert Kennedy. As the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, which has sold, as we all now know, over thirty million copies in forty languages, and may be the best selling American novel of all time, of course she deserves to be there. There is no question this is an intelligent, organized, respectable piece of work; the better question is whether this book ever needed to be written at all.
Nevertheless, Madden does her due diligence. First, there is the ritualistic request for an interview, which Lee ritualistically turned down as she has every request since 1964, even a request from Oprah, to talk about her work. Lee has gone on record as saying she does not believe in biographies of the living. They are, after all, not done yet. She wrote Madden "I may be old but I'm still breathing." In any case, those not actually seeking public office are entitled to their secrets, or at least to the right not to cooperate. Madden, of course undeterred, read what printed material there was and spent more than a week interviewing friends of Lee and citizens of Monroeville in order to be quoting from fresh interviews, not from Charles Shields' biography, Mockingbird. These friends and citizens spoke sparsely, repeating anecdotal bits they had previously revealed and really nothing new or startling. I do not think the reader will learn anything of consequence from this book that is not in Mockingbird.
But, in a sense, that is not the point, and I am not the target reader. One must try to remember that this volume is for Young Adults, whatever they are these days, so the sentences tend to be short and the diction avoids the extravagant. No one will increase his word power with these young adult biographies. Madden gives the synopsis of Lee's life?her admirable father and troubled mother, her years as a tomboy in Monroeville, her friendship with Truman Capote, a year at Huntingdon College and then a few here at Tuscaloosa, some law school but no degree, the years of writing struggle in New York, the time helping Truman in Kansas with In Cold Blood, the wild success of what Harper Lee and her sister, Alice, came to refer to as "The Bird," 1960, as Pulitzer Prize winning novel and hugely popular, Oscar-winning film, and then the gradual withdrawal from the public scene, a withdrawal that has lasted from the middle sixties until the present, some 45 years. Page 163 deals with 1963. The next twenty pages bring us from '63 to 2009. Clearly, there is not much story there.
Along the way, Madden educates her young readers with some short essays on the Great Depression, racial segregation in thirties Alabama, a thumbnail summary of the filming of the novel, Lee's friendship with Gregory Peck, her difficult relationship with Truman Capote, and many other matters.
Madden seems more certain than most that Lee wrote another novel in the 1960s, again set in Monroeville, but never published, and that there is a nonfiction manuscript entitled "The Reverend," about a series of deaths in Alexander City, which Lee had researched for most of a year. Madden says, as the very last line in her biography, "But it will not be published in her lifetime." I think that is a pretty sure bet.
From time to time in this book, Madden refers to Charles Shields's biography as "unauthorized." Well, so is this book, and so will all writing about Miss Lee be until after her passing and until her friends and neighbors feel free to tell whatever it is they have to tell. I will be very surprised if it is shocking and exciting.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."