Review of "Mockingbird" by Charles J. Shields (Henry Holt, 2006)

Give a Biographer a Break-- Listen to this "Mockingbird" by David Marshall James High damn time that someone attempted a biography of Harper Lee, and it could have been far, far worse than Charles J. Shields' "Mockingbird" (Henry Holt, May 2006). First, his stated reason for doing so sounds sensible. That is, to undertake the project while those who can recall Lee are still living and able to comment on the record. Second, the writer herself is still living, and, although she declined to cooperate with this project (she does not grant interviews and she refuses to discuss "To Kill a Mockingbird" [1960] under any circumstances), she could certainly counter with her own memoir, however brief, and assuredly garner a fortune in the process. Nevertheless, reviews of the Shields biography have been carrying the condescending tone of "Yes, it's interesting, BUT--." But, what, indeed? Should all potential biographers have waited until Lee and her contemporaries expired, then come forth with wild, unsubstantiated, and most decidedly unanswerable allegations? Somebody should have taken a stab at this 25 years ago, when Lee's childhood-into-adulthood friend Truman Capote (probably the person most knowledgeable about her, aside from her family) could have been willingly interviewed at length. Lee turned 80 this April. We all hope she'll publish a second book, or at least leave an unpublished typescript, yet both appear doubtful. Furthermore, she simply doesn't live in a "public record" milieu anymore. Indeed, since the mid 1960s, when her obligation to publicize both "TKAM" and its film version had been fulfilled (the author owns a percentage of the 1962 film, which earned Gregory Peck an Academy Award as Best Actor), Lee began leading an increasingly private life, the antithesis of Capote's almost nakedly public final decades. Therefore, Shields hasn't overstepped an "it's premature to do this" boundary. And, yes-- the reader does spot the occasional textual mistake (I'm thinking in particular of his placing the Emmet Till torture/murder case in Alabama, not Mississippi, where it occurred). Nevertheless, that begs the question, where was his editor? Do book editors not check facts anymore? I'm still reeling over the recent debacle at Doubleday with James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" and believe Oprah Winfrey should have pilloried the editorial staff there as much as-- if not more than-- Frey. Be that as it may-- and I've discovered glaring mistakes in works by the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner A. Scott Berg, but he's something of a critical darling, with a deservedly outstanding reputation-- I left "Mockingbird" feeling as if I knew Lee. I felt her urge, her drive to become nothing less than "the Jane Austen of south Alabama." When your childhood buddy is Capote and your favorite plaything is a typewriter and you live on a street lined with Southern Gothic neighbors, the burning question is, "How the hell do you not become a writer?" Nelle Harper Lee suppressed her calling (she dropped this first name from her byline, for fear people would pronounce it "Nellie") long enough to come one semester from becoming a lawyer. Her father-- the venerable attorney, newspaper publisher, and state legislator A.C. (Amasa Coleman) Lee-- had already easily persuaded eldest daughter Alice to hang out her shingle at the family firm on the town square in Monroeville, Alabama. However, Nelle-- the youngest of four children-- had always been something of a rebel. Some onlookers claimed she lacked Alice's sense of responsibility, a trait engendered in the oldest daughter by their mother Frances' declining mental state. Capote went so far as to assert, to biographer Gerald Clarke, that Nelle's mother had attempted to drown her youngest child in the bathtub, something Alice vehemently denies. However, the unfortunate truth is that, for all intents and purposes, Nelle's mother was largely "not there"-- in the figurative sense-- for her. Thus, the children in "TKAM"-- Scout and Jem Finch-- have no mother. Lee's older brother died during his thirties, while her other sister settled down as a housewife in Eufala, Alabama. Although she apparently never composed a word for her father's newspaper, the writing bug seems to have bitten Nelle in earnest while she was pursuing her law courses at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, perhaps not coincidentally at the time Capote's first novel, "Other Voices, Other Rooms" (1948) was published. Capote had left Monroeville for New York City in the company of his mother and her second husband before Nelle commenced high school. Serving as editor of and contributor to the university's literary magazine, The Rammer Jammer, apparently redirected Nelle along her authorial path. With misgivings, her father put her on the train to New York, with the proviso that she must find some means of supporting herself while seeking literary recognition. He didn't believe Monroeville was large enough to hoist two writers on the publishing stage. Fascinatingly, the town has produced another well-know writer in recent years, Mark Childress, best known for his novel "Crazy in Alabama." Nelle became stuck in a groove as an airlines reservationist until some friends provided her with enough money one Christmas to take a full year off to write. After showing an agent some of her short stories, he encouraged her to attempt a novel, what eventually became "TKAM," after almost five years of drafts and revisions, between her guardian agent and her editor at Lippincott. Shields documents that Capote's hand came nowhere near the project, although Nelle did allow him an early peek prior to publication. If he offered suggestions, they were distinctly secondary to those of the guiding editorial forces at Lippincott. Indeed, Shields makes a case that Capote's "In Cold Blood" probably would have been stalled in the early stages of his research had not Nelle facilitated interviews via her down-to-earth, folksy charm in Kansas, where Capote was viewed as something of a New York freak. Shields maintains that Nelle may have completed two unpublished works in the years following the sensation of "TKAM": Another Alabama-set novel and a "nonfiction novel" somewhat in the vein of "In Cold Blood," involving a string of true-life insurance-scam murders in an Alabama town. Nelle's sister Alice, with whom the author spends at least six months per year in Monroeville, once stated that the draft of the novel was stolen. Given the value of such a manuscript, the veracity of this assertion could be called into question. (That is, it surely would have surfaced, for sale, by now.) Allegedly purloined typescripts aside, Nelle Harper Lee stands as a 20th-century literary phenomenon on at least two counts: First, her almost-lifelong relationship with Capote, during which they cross-pollinated one another's fiction with portraits of each other, of their shared acquaintances, and also of each other's relatives. Capote wrote a blistering early sketch lampooning Nelle's unfortunate mother as "The Busybody." Furthermore, future thesis and dissertation writers can explore the extent of Nelle's contribution to "In Cold Blood." That leaves the magnum opus, the book that has become more widely read among junior-high and high-school students during the past four decades than any other. Nothing remotely compares to it-- not J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," nor John Knowles' "A Separate Peace," both of which appeal more to a male readership than a universal audience. Indeed, "TKAM" has been translated into more than 35 languages. Additionally, the film version-- for all its deemphasis of Jem and Scout and pedestal-placing of their father, Atticus Finch-- has become a classic. Oprah Winfrey has grouped it with "The Wizard of Oz" in naming her two favorite films. Perhaps the book strikes readers-- particularly readers who are transitioning from childhood to adulthood-- with such force because it depicts (brilliantly, through a childhood perspective) the inherited injustices of the world, injustices that our own parents (or other mentors) are often powerless to overcome, in spite of fighting the good, difficult, unpopular fight. The novel asks us, "Will our generation manage to succeed where theirs continues to fail?" Yet, there's a comfort, too, in that that which frightens us, mystifies us as children (the Boo Radleys of the world) can redeem us, even save us. The bogeyman, then, is less likely to be hiding under the bed, or in the scary house down the street, than standing in front of us in the checkout line or walking in front of us on the town square. Real monsters, then, are often quite common, with ordinary faces. Teaching the novel to high-school students drew Shields toward an appreciation of and curiosity about Nelle Harper Lee. If his "Mockingbird" manages to coax a memoir-- even just an autobiography of her childhood-- from his subject, it will have more than served its purpose. * * *