Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Jul 17, 2006

Mockingbird is a fine biography of Nelle Harper Lee from her birth in 1926 to the age of forty and makes good reading.

When I first heard that a biography of Harper Lee was being written, I must admit I was skeptical. She has become as well-known for her reclusiveness as J. D. Salinger. She lives modestly in a Manhattan apartment for half the year, lives with her older, lawyer sister, Alice, in Monroeville half the year, gives no interviews, and rarely appears at a public gathering of any sort. What was there to write?

It turns out I was half right. In fact, the years between 1966 and the present, forty years, are covered from pages 264 to 285, a total of twenty-one pages. Even there, however, there was information one did not know.

In the 1980s, it seems, Lee worked for a couple of years on a nonfiction novel about a man suspected of killing five people?two wives, a brother, a nephew, and a niece. ?Willie Joe? Maxwell, having been acquitted four separate times, even though each time he was the beneficiary of the deceased's life insurance policy, was then shot to death in the courtroom during his fifth murder trial. This sounds like a great story, and it is a shame Lee didn?t finish it and publish it. I would read it with interest.

Lee, the most famous one-book author in American literary history, also worked for several years, right after Mockingbird, on a novel of race and change in a town like Monroeville during the Civil Rights era. But, finally, Lee published only one book, and so what. If Milton had written only Paradise Lost, or Shakespeare only Hamlet, would people go around complaining?

But enough about the books she didn?t finish, the reclusive life we know little about. Mockingbird is a fine biography of Nelle Harper Lee from her birth in 1926 to the age of forty and makes good reading. She was of course raised in little Monroeville, Alabama, and her father, A.C. Lee, was a lawyer, newspaper publisher, and state representative. He was the model for Atticus but, being a real person, was not as liberal or as all-around saintly.

Nelle Lee attended Huntingdon for a year and then the University of Alabama where she joined the Chi Omega sorority?it was not a good fit?wrote for the Crimson White and edited Rammer Jammer, a campus humor magazine. Lee switched over to the law school in her junior year, which was allowed then, but never graduated and instead moved to New York City at the age of twenty-three to write.

Shields announces straightforwardly in his Introduction that he has cleared up or at least seriously investigated several areas of confusion and rumor about Ms. Lee. She never practiced law, never married or is known to have had a romantic relationship with any person, and she did write To Kill a Mockingbird, herself, going through draft after draft, over a period of years, with only a minute amount of advice from her childhood friend Truman Capote.

The greatest help she received with the book was from two New York friends, Joy and Michael Brown, who, getting a surprise windfall themselves, in 1956 gave Ms. Lee a Christmas present of enough money to take a year off from her job as an Eastern Airlines ticket agent and finish Mockingbird.

This book, as it inevitably must, has a good deal to say about Capote, none of it good. As Capote?s assistant in Kansas, working on In Cold Blood, Lee helped enormously. She was warm and Kansans liked her and were willing to talk to her. It should be no surprise that the citizens of Kansas thought Capote to be just about a freak. Capote acknowledged her help hardly at all, grudgingly remarking that ?she was just there.?

On the other hand, when Capote was asked if he had made a major contribution to Mockingbird, he never went to any special lengths to deny it. The envious Capote, who never let a good turn go unpunished, enjoyed the whisperings that he was the ghost writer of a Pulitzer Prize winner.

It is rumored that the very private Ms. Lee did not want her biography written, did not cooperate herself and asked her friends not to help either. Shields went ahead anyway, of course, interviewed more than five hundred people, including citizens of Monroeville, Lee?s fellow students at Huntingdon and Alabama, anyone, it seems, who had ever met her!

Lee had nothing to worry about; she comes across as a generous, intelligent, kind, and intellectually serious person. To Kill a Mockingbird is ranked second only to the Bible as ?making a difference in people?s lives.? It still sells a million copies a year, forty-six years after publication, and is available in practically every language on earth.