Wednesday, February 16, 2011

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

What do you do as a writer when your biographical subject is secretive and has a community full of friends protecting her privacy? Charles J. Shields faced this situation in writing Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Lee, of course, did not agree to an interview and the townspeople of Monroeville, Alabama politely declined to discuss Lee. So, he had to talk to the few Lee associates left in New York, Kansas, and other parts of her home state. He also sought out every archived interview and document that he could find. The result is a biography that is by no means complete. Very little is revealed about Lee's life after the mid-1960s and the section about her work with Truman Capote on In Cold Blood is probably longer than it might have otherwise been.

The holes in the story may have actually made the book better for our church group book discussion. We had many questions to ask, such as "Why did Lee never finish the second book after To Kill a Mockingbird?" Early in the book, Shields suggests he'll show us why. Some of us felt he did not deliver. We suggested many contributing factors but who could say what held her back. These included:

  • Lee really had nothing further to say after doing so well the first time.
  • She was always cautious, even on the first book, for which she had much editorial help, and feared writing a poor second try.
  • Promoting To Kill a Mockingbird broke her habit of writing and she never refound it.
  • She truly disliked the spotlight thrust upon her after the first book.
  • Returning to Monroeville after years in New York disrupted her work.
  • She needed to give her family more attention.
  • The death of her trusted editor made another try unappealing.
  • Her friend Truman Capote's cold response to her writing turned her off.

Many of these could be factors but they also sound like excuses. She is known to have started books on at least two occasions and said on several occasions that she lived to write, so the "nothing left to say" argument does not ring true. I think the answer lies in a mix of factors involving discipline and confidence.

Some of our group felt disappointed that the biographer did not draw a clearer picture of Lee. I think that might be too much to ask when there is so little known about Lee's thinking from the last forty years. I enjoyed the book as a "just what we know" account. I suspect there will be fuller biographies in the future - if Lee's papers become public and friends ever feel free to speak. Don't hold your breath, however, because it may be many years before the whole story is told.

Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. Holt, 2006. ISBN 080507919X

1 comment:

Amy L. Campbell said...

Actually it sounds like Mary McDonagh Murphy managed to interview Lee's sister and other friends in her book "Scout, Atticus, and Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird". I haven't read it yet, but I did see Nancy Pearl interview Murphy at ALA 2010 and it looked like she knew her stuff, or at least had more to add to the biographical knowledge.