Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

On June 12, the Alabama Booksmith, a Birmingham hot spot for locating first editions, held a signing for Mockingbird. Author Charles J. Shields signed many copies of his latest work of non-fiction. Preferring fiction, I selected this book only for its subject: Nelle Harper Lee. I went into it with limited (and mostly false) prior knowledge of the author of the greatest novel ever written. I had heard that Harper Lee was reclusive, that she lived in New York, and that there were nasty rumors that she didn’t even write the book at all, but that her childhood friend Truman Capote did. I also knew that she had never published another book following To Kill a Mockingbird, but not why.

Shields’s book did not disappoint. There is so much information packed into its 285 pages and additional 34 pages of carefully documented footnotes that it would require multiple readings to truly digest. While Shields is clear that he has never able to get any direct information from Harper Lee herself, he does a fabulous job of painting a picture of her life thus far while respecting the clear boundaries set by Miss Lee and her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Here is a condensed list of the surprises contained within Mockingbird:

-She actually goes by Nelle Lee.

-She was a member of a sorority (Chi Omega) during her 2 years at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

-Her mother suffered mentally from a condition not disclosed.

-Her father, A.C. Lee was indeed the model for Atticus Finch. However, A.C. was very hesitant to join the ranks in the fight for social equity. As a matter of fact, Reverend Ray Whatley, minister of the First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, documented that A.C. approached him after a sermon that included statements on racial equality one Sunday morning to tell him that he needed to “get off the ‘social justice’ and back on the gospel.” (page 123)

It helps to know that eventually, A.C. did in fact become a leader in equal treatment of blacks and whites.

-She lives in Monroeville mostly from October to May, and in New York during the summer months. According to vignettes from Monroeville residents, the locals guard her privacy very carefully and protect her from nosy, invasive reporters.

-It was not Capote who was slighted by being deprived of recognition for helping write To Kill a Mockingbird, but rather Lee who was hurt by Capote’s failure to acknowledge all of her help with In Cold Blood (a documentation of the investigation and trial of the murders of a Kansas family). From everything mentioned regarding Capote, Nelle Lee is a precious person worthy of praise for putting up with his antics. The next biography I undertake will likely be one about Truman Capote (nah-I’ll probably just watch the movie!), but from what is mentioned about him in this book, he was a horribly selfish and attention-seeking man. If he had anything to do with To Kill a Mockingbird, he would have shouted it from the rooftops. The fact that he never did anything at all on Nelle’s behalf to dispel the rumors that he wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and therefore to eliminate speculation, only further illustrates how self-centered he was.

There are two different aspects of this book that call for deeper thought:

1. The title-I think Shields named the book Mockingbird to indicate a similarity between Nelle Lee and Boo Radley.

2. Additional books- From everything Shields was able to gather about Nelle, it is very plain that she is a writer. Writers must write. I am convinced that somewhere safe, Nelle Harper Lee has several finished manuscripts that await posthumous publication. The worst fear of an author who has accomplished what Nelle Harper Lee did- on her first try- is that everything else will fall short. Nelle Harper Lee still writes, and one day we will be able to read it.