"Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee from Scout to 'Go Set a Watchman'" By Charles J. Shields

Oct 5, 2016

“Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee from Scout to ‘Go Set a Watchman’”

Author: Charles J. Shields 

Publisher: Henry Holt and Company

Pages: 310

Price: $26.00 (Hardcover)

As the long subtitle suggests, Shields has greatly expanded his 2006 biography of Harper Lee adding, he estimates, 50,000 words conveying a lot of new material. This is true. Those who have not read the first version will want to get this; those who own the 2006 version might buy this one too or read the epilogue at their local library. Once again, there was no cooperation from the family.

The bulk of the story is the same. Miss Lee was a tomboy in Monroeville, grew up friends with Truman Capote, attended Huntingdon and then UA and UA Law. Lee joined a sorority, but never really fit in, enjoyed writing for the “Crimson-White” and “Rammer-Jammer,” and, without graduating, moved to New York City to write.

Shields expands on Lee’s struggles over six years as an unpublished writer in New York.

Lee wrote of Monroeville in short stories first, then the novel set in the 1950’s, which was published as “Go Set a Watchman” in 2015, then “Mockingbird.” We learn here of editor Tay Hohoff’s enormous contribution, working with Lee for what must have been hundreds of hours, in reshaping the material.

I was reminded of the collaboration/relationship between Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins in shaping “Look Homeward, Angel.” Wolfe got so self-conscious about critics saying he could not do without Perkins that he changed editors.

Shields, near the end of the biography, speculates that Lee’s distancing from “Mockingbird,” her refusal to talk about it, or to talk with actors like Mary Badham who played Scout, might reveal that “she lacks a sense of ownership.” Was she lost without Tay Hohoff as guide and mentor?

There is considerable discussion of Lee’s attempts to write another book after “Mockingbird.”

Several were attempted, including years spent researching a serial murderer in Alexander City, working title “The Reverend,” but Lee could never finish the book. Too bad. It might have set her writing career back in motion.

Shields is even so bold as to compare Lee’s pronouncements that her book was nearly done with Capote’s false claims during the last decade of his life that he was writing furiously on his Proustian masterpiece, “Answered Prayers.”

At one point she said “the galleys are at the publishers; it should be published in about a week.”

At another point sister Alice told the BBC a burglar broke into Lee’s NY apartment and stole the manuscript of her second novel. Probably not.

The book never appeared.

Shields is also daring, considering the steady stream of legal wrangling in Monroeville, in laying out that there are three conflicting stories of the “discovery” of the “Watchman” manuscript in the law offices of Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter, after Alice Lee had died and Tonja Carter had power of attorney.

In one version, Carter and Samuel L. Pinkus handed the manuscript to Justin Caldwell, Sotheby’s appraiser. In another, Carter was absent at the time, and in yet a third, all three discovered it together. And why was Pinkus co-executor of Lee’s estate when he had duped Miss Lee into signing over the copyright to “Mockingbird” and had been successfully sued into giving it back?

Alice died at 103. “Watchman” was then published although Lee had said numerous times that she had said everything she had to say with “Mockingbird.”

Shields also summarizes the unseemly lawsuits with the non-profit Monroe County Museum over coffee mugs, cookbooks and tea towels, and defends Marja Mills and her book “The Mockingbird Next Door.” Despite protestations, memory lapses, or misunderstandings, it seems pretty clear that Mills did have the friendship and cooperation of the Lee sisters. Alice Lee said so.

There is nothing here about the ruckus over suspension of permission to put on the “Mockingbird” play, with the resulting loss of income for the museum.

It is generally considered risky business, if not rude business, to biographize the living. Changes happen. On the last page of this biography, Nelle Harper Lee dies. Shields could not know that the contents of her will were sealed, as have been, when interviewed, the mouths of most of the citizens of Monroeville. Up to now.

This may be a combination of respect for privacy and fear of getting entangled in lawsuits. If Charles Shields comes back for a third bite at the biographical apple or when the next biographer comes to town, he may find a citizenry much more willing to speak.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.”