- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

MOCKINGBIRD: A PORTRAIT OF HARPER LEE

By Charles J. Shields

Henry Holt, $25, 337 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

Harper Lee is widely known for two things: as the author of the modern American classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), and as a very private person. Admirers of the artist and her masterwork can therefore be grateful to biographer Charles J. Shields for shedding some much-needed light on Miss Lee’s family, friends, background and literary accomplishment.

But as for Miss Lee herself, at the end of reading the present volume, the reader continues to see her as through a glass darkly.

Why? In writing “Mockingbird,” the first full-length biography of Miss Lee, Mr. Shields interviewed hundreds of her friends and associates, and sleuthed doggedly through dozens of newspaper and magazine articles on his subject.

Unfortunately, as he informs us in the early pages of his work, Miss Lee declined to be interviewed. As a result, reading “Mockingbird” is something like viewing the life of a person who lives in a world illuminated not by the steady glow of the sun, but by lightning flashes.

Despite this handicap, Mr. Shields has produced a work that all future biographers of Harper Lee will need to consult for its many commendable aspects. The biographer vividly recounts Miss Lee’s Depression-era upbringing in sleepy Monroeville, Ala., where she was christened Nelle Harper Lee, and referred to as Nelle by her family and friends (and biographer).

She grew into a precocious individualist who enjoyed solitude, reading, and writing stories, often in the company of a neighbor boy, young Truman Capote — who, like Nelle, would someday attain fame as a writer.

Monroeville and its citizens during the 1920s and ‘30s bore many resemblances to the fictional town of Maycomb in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Mr. Shields describes these similarities in an appropriately nuanced manner, while taking care to distinguish points at which aspects of Nelle Lee’s life and background differed from what appears in her novel.

Reaching adulthood, Nelle pursued in earnest her dream to become a writer. She moved to New York, where she worked at several day jobs and spent her evenings writing, slowly making headway.

In time, some friends who had experienced a windfall presented Nelle with a sizeable check that would enable her to quit her jobs and write full time for a year. This she did, and the result was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a work she completed at about the time she traveled with Capote to Holcomb, Kan. to look into the murder of the Clutter family, an investigation that resulted in his “nonfiction novel,” “In Cold Blood” (1966).

Capote was on assignment for the New Yorker, and he sought out Nelle to conduct research and help him interview neighbors of the murdered family, law-enforcement officials, and (in time) the accused. Mr. Shields’ account of this portion of Nelle’s life truly catches fire, enabling the reader to sense the bewilderment of small-town Kansans caught up in a murder investigation, the suspicion faced by Capote and Nelle, and the piecing-together of clues that led to the murderers’ arrest.

At the conclusion of her Kansas assignment and the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Nelle was wildly acclaimed, rode an avalanche of public appearances and speaking obligations, and was besieged by admirers who intruded upon her privacy without hesitation. Then, aside from publishing a handful of magazine articles during the early Sixties, several public-speaking appearances and much talk of a second novel, Nelle largely disappeared from the public eye.

In her introduction to the 35th-anniversary edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Nelle wrote at one point, “I am still alive, although very quiet.”

Aside from this statement and the insights from her magazine articles published in the early-to-mid 1960s, we know precious little of Harper Lee outside the comments of friends, acquaintances and people who have attempted to intrude upon Nelle’s privacy — and Capote, who was intensely jealous of Nelle for her literary success and repaid her friendship by telling ugly lies about her.

Had Mr. Shields enjoyed firsthand access to Nelle’s insights, he might have obtained the answers to some of the unanswered questions that linger at the conclusion of “Mockingbird”: What role does Nelle’s Christian faith play in her life, she being a lifelong Methodist? Was the manuscript of her long-rumored second novel indeed stolen from her house, as was reported on one occasion? What ever happened to still another novel, based upon the life of a real-life serial killer, that Nelle worked on for several years?

The answer to one key question is put forward. Early in the biography, Mr. Shields states one of his goals as helping the reader begin to understand why Miss Lee never published another novel after “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The multifaceted answer lies in the demands upon Nelle’s time exacted by admirers, her sense of loss over the deaths of editors and agents she had worked with when her single novel was written, and because she had poured her all into “To Kill a Mockingbird” — and said all she intended to say.

A number of gnat-bite errors — small but irksome — appear in Mr. Shields’ volume. The name of the literary agency that handles Miss Lee’s work is misspelled. The title of a reminiscence Miss Lee contributed to McCall’s in 1961 is “Christmas to Me,” not “Christmas Means to Me.” The “United Methodist Church” Mr. Shields notes as the faith tradition into which Nelle was raised during the Depression didn’t become “United” until 1968, when the old Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren.

Of more serious concern are those portions of “Mockingbird” in which Mr. Shields gingerly approaches suppositions about Nelle’s life that he was unable to substantiate, because of not having firsthand access to her insights.

For example, at one point he suggests that Nelle may have suffered from an unrequited love affair with her literary agent, Maurice Crain. There is nothing to back up this speculation aside from amateur psychologizing and the dubious suppositions of Truman Capote, whom the author elsewhere portrays as a gossipmonger. Why choose to include such a suggestion at all?

These areas aside, there is much to commend in “Mockingbird.” Admirers of Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird” can be grateful to Mr. Shields for helping piece together the story, however imperfectly, of this American literary icon. A biography informed by the insights of Miss Lee herself has yet to be written — but for that matter (considering Miss Lee’s private nature) it may never be written.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of the biography “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House).

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