Thursday, July 6, 2006
By LARRY McGEHEE
Nelle Harper Lee of Monroeville, Alabama, turned 80 on April 28 this year. Her novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” now taught in three-fourths of the nation’s high schools, turned 46 on July 11.
Except for signing events after the book’s publication, Miss Lee has managed to live her long life on her own terms, famous almost as much for protecting her privacy as for her Pulitzer-winning book. Producing a biography of a famous author who declined to collaborate at all with her biographer has to have been a Sisyphus-like achievement for Charles J. Shields.
Reinforced with numerous interviews of her relatives and friends and patient retracing of places she has been, Shields has made a valiant effort to pierce the Lee veil.
The result is Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (Henry Holt and Company, 2006, 338 pp., $25).
Miss Lee, in Shields’ reconstruction of her life, is her six-year-old heroine, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, grown up. She is unorthodox, sometimes tom-boyish, in her attire, her language, her love of football, her smoking and drinking habits, and her independence. She has, for years, divided her time between Monroeville (“home”) and New York City (an austere apartment).
And, again like Scout, Miss Lee has been closely attached to her family—to lawyer-father A.C. Lee, the inspiration for Atticus Finch, to brother Edwin, who died at age 30 while in the Army Air Force, and to lawyer-sister Alice, 95, with whom she lives in Alabama.
Miss Lee was herself headed to be a lawyer. After a year at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, she transferred to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, rising rapidly to become editor of the quarterly Rammer Jammer literary and humor magazine. Her junior year, she entered law school, in an era when one could get a law degree in the junior and senior years. (Many of her professors and law classmates were still around when I worked there in the late 1960s — Leigh Harrison, Jack Payne, Jay Murphy, Dan Meador, Howell Heflin, and Hudson Strode among them.)
Summer study in literature at Oxford may have focused her life. She dropped out of law school after first semester of her senior year. Another option could have been editing the Monroeville Journal, the local newspaper owned by her father, but the paper was sold to Jimmy Faulkner, owner of the Baldwin Times, and his editor, Bill Stewart (I have admiring memories of both).
The most consistent thread of influences and interactions in Miss Lee’s life may have been her lifelong friendship with and support of Truman Capote (the visiting boy, Dill, in her novel, as she was Idabel Tompkins in his Other Voices, Other Rooms). A quarter or so of this biography of Miss Lee revolves around her contacts and collaboration from about age 5 with Capote on until he died in 1984.
They created short stories and painstakingly typed them together on an upright typewriter given her by her father. The pattern persisted when Capote wrote his most famous book, In Cold Blood, about killings and killers in Kansas. Miss Lee accompanied Capote there and did extensive work, gaining interviews Capote could not arrange and making copious notes.
To all appearances, she was a co-author of the book, but Capote — typically — exploited her, giving her no credit at all in the book’s introduction. In latter-day Capote style, he abused her friendship and deprecated her achievements. Yet, she remained loyal to him.
A goodly part of the biography is a description of Monroeville and its residents, from which one can draw inferences about the roles certain people and buildings played in the novel. Another portion of the biography is devoted to the reactions to her novel and her handling of the attendant attention it drew. The final portion treats her alleged self-imposed reclusivity.
A goodly amount of space is devoted to the history of the film made from the novel two years after its publication. Gregory Peck, cast as Atticus Finch, became a courtly friend of Miss Lee’s, a long-time friendship. But he was also a major investor in the film production, thereby earning some editing rights that meant that in the movie, the focus shifted from the adventures and observations of the children to the patriarchal Atticus and the courtroom.
Never publishing again became an irritating topic to Miss Lee as time passed.
Most often, she shied away from questions about a second novel, preferring to believe that any subsequent work would have been a “downhill” experience. And perhaps her instincts were right in the long run — deprived though her fans feel — because how could she ever have matched that singular and resounding professional pinnacle that To Kill a Mockingbird became?
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