One-Hit Wonder

Reviewed by Meghan O'Rourke
Sunday, July 23, 2006


A Portrait of Harper Lee

By Charles J. Shields

Henry Holt. 337 pp. $25

Once upon a time, To Kill a Mockingbird was merely the fledgling effort of an unknown Southern writer -- then known as Nelle Harper Lee -- from a small town in Alabama. When the novel was first submitted to a publishing house, the editors turned it down, noting its lack of structure and encouraging Lee to revise it. With steadfast persistence, she worked on her manuscript until it was finally deemed publishable. To Kill a Mockingbird hit the bookstores in 1960. Within weeks, it had become a bestseller. Forty-five years later, it is practically an industry of its own: To date, more than 30 million copies have been sold, and by 1988 three-quarters of the public schools in America were teaching it.

Despite the novel's success, Lee, as is widely known, never published another book; instead, she retreated to her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., where she has given few interviews since 1964. In the eyes of the public, she has long become nearly as invisible as her indelible shut-in, Boo Radley, though she recently gave an interview to the New York Times and wrote a short essay for O magazine.

Now we have Charles J. Shields's Mockingbird , the first book-length treatment of her life. An unauthorized biography, it relies largely on interviews and "other sorts of communication" with Lee's acquaintances to trace her life from childhood through the publication of the novel and the years following, during which Lee struggled to write a second book. Mockingbird is less a biography than, as its subtitle claims, "a portrait," and like all portraits, it is highly subjective. More dogged than shrewd, it is hardly the definitive treatment Lee merits, nor is it a particularly perceptive argument about the place of To Kill a Mockingbird in American literature. (Shields has also written biographies for young adults.) However, it usefully and often entertainingly compiles and organizes information about Lee's life and offers a plausible answer to the question that preoccupies so many readers: Why did Lee never write another book -- and why did she retreat from the public?

For Shields, the answer lies in Lee's birthplace and in her paradoxical personality. Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, a small town in which everyone knew each other's business. She was a saucy yet shy child. Her father, like Atticus Finch, was a lawyer with a civic-minded bent that he instilled in his three daughters and one son -- though, as Shields points out, Lee's father was long a supporter of segregation. Her mother was an invalid, who, it seems, suffered either from manic depression or an undiagnosed mental illness; she did very little mothering of Nelle, who was largely left to a maid's ministrations (much as Scout is in To Kill a Mockingbird ).

In what proved to be a crucial event, the shy but saucy Lee met Truman Capote one summer when the 5-year-old boy was living with his aunts next door. Bonded by what Capote called their "apartness," the children began to write stories on an Underwood typewriter Lee's father gave them.

The portrait that emerges from Shields's research in Mockingbird is of a tomboyish young woman with little tolerance for pretension; she was remembered by one classmate as a "deflater of phoniness." In 1949, after giving up on getting a law degree at the University of Alabama (where she made few friends but sharpened her wit writing a column for the university newspaper titled "Caustic Comment"), Lee moved to New York to follow in Capote's footsteps. Capote had already published a novel and -- always the more outgoing of the two -- he introduced her around town, but many of his friends found her dull. "Here was this dumpy girl from Monroeville. We didn't think she was up to much. She said she was writing a book and that was that," one recalled. Lee struggled to make a living until, with the financial assistance of Joy and Michael Brown, two artists whom she met through Capote, she sat down to write the novel that became To Kill a Mockingbird .

Shields deftly shows that Lee's editor, Tay Hohoff, was instrumental not only in getting the novel published but in shaping it into the book it is today. As Hohoff put it, "The editorial call to duty was plain." Lee needed "professional help in organizing her material and developing a sound plot structure."

Mockingbird is best where it deflates rumor and hearsay and fills in a more accurate picture of the woman. Shields makes a convincing case that Lee, a standoffish, stubborn woman invested in precision, became too "overwhelmed" by the success of her first novel to finish any of her subsequent efforts. (Her sister told a reporter that Lee's second book, about hunting deer, was stolen shortly before completion, but the story rings false.) For Lee, he observes, writing was always about capturing the everyday nuances of Southern small-town life she knew so well -- and, in her own way, loved; when she became famous, her relationship to that world was permanently altered.

Shields persuasively demonstrates that, despite widespread rumors, it's highly unlikely that Capote had anything to do with To Kill a Mockingbird . Rather, Shields shows that Lee actually contributed more to Capote's In Cold Blood than is commonly thought, writing several hundred pages of notes on which Capote heavily relied.

Even so, Mockingbird fails to offer as nuanced a portrait of Lee as one would hope for or to cast much literary insight on To Kill a Mockingbird . In the absence of reliable data from which to forge a coherent narrative, Shields follows his research down many a cul de sac and pads out trivial details (a whole page is dedicated to the movies that were nominated for various Oscars in 1962) while giving short shrift to complicated questions: Is To Kill a Mockingbird a great novel or a sentimental, didactic one? Was Lee really a brilliant writer or an average one who, with great diligence and the support system of a talented editor and agent, was able to shape a highly autobiographical story that hit a cultural nerve in the years leading up to the civil rights movement?

Readers who love To Kill a Mockingbird will want to read this book for its tidbits of engaging info. But in the end, this is less a rigorous biography than a pleasant evocation of how one fiercely private woman was perceived by those around her. As such, it reminds us that a biography is, always, a fiction in its own right. ยท

Meghan O'Rourke is the culture editor of Slate magazine.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company