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Harper Lee wrote only one, but what a book it was

Her decision to shun the limelight creates a challenge for would-be biographers.

By Steve Weinberg / June 13, 2006



In an era of celebrity, when novelists scrap for any smidgen of publicity, Harper Lee is an enigma. On the scale of reclusiveness, she ranks with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Furthermore, Lee is at the center of a mystery inapplicable to Salinger and Pynchon: Why, after achieving fame with her first novel, did she fail to ever publish another book? It's a question Charles Shields never quite answers in his new biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.

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When "To Kill a Mockingbird" became one of the best-known novels of all time 45 years ago, Lee became an unlikely celebrity. In her mid-30s, from rural Monroeville, Ala., Lee had moved to New York City a decade earlier despite the disapproval of her lawyer father and his law partner, Harper's eldest sister, Alice.

Harper Lee knew, just knew, she could write a publishable novel. Supported partly by family money and partly by wages earned outside the publishing world, Lee completed her manuscript: a novel about a racially charged rape case, about the companionship of children, about suspicion and trust. Assisted by a talented literary agent and a talented editor, Lee revised the manuscript into something memorable. The transformation of the novel into a movie starring Gregory Peck spread Lee's renown and increased the pressure on her to publish a second novel. That never happened.

An undertaking that intimidated many

This year, Lee turns 80 years old. Her fame will never die. But because she is a semirecluse and because her failure to publish again has turned her life into a mystery, a biography about her seemed way too challenging to most writers.

Shields, a former schoolteacher who used "To Kill a Mockingbird" in his classroom, believes it is timeless in part "because its lessons of human dignity and respect for others remain fundamental and universal."

Introducing the novel to high school freshmen is good timing, Shields says, "because students at that age are crossing the bridge from childhood to young adulthood, as the young characters in Lee's novel are. In-class discussions of the novel tend to be lively, and assigned essays are weighty with insights and opinions. It's a very rich text to teach."

For those who have never read the novel or have forgotten the details, Shields provides a superb summary.

Shields clearly understands the book beautifully. But when it comes to Harper Lee herself, as a biographer, Shields fails to crack the wall of silence his subject has built around herself. As a first-time biographer for adult readers (he has published books aimed at young adults), Shields learned that an "intensely private" personal life cannot always be penetrated successfully without the subject's cooperation.

It is difficult to condemn Lee for her decision to remain private and to never publish another novel. "In our era of relentless and often prurient self-exposure by some approval-hungry personalities, Lee prefers self-respect," Shields notes. "That is not to say she is furtively reclusive; though she enjoys her solitude, she is not some modern-day Emily Dickinson. She lives a normal life, replete with community activities, many related to her church."

Less than the full story

Despite failing to penetrate Lee's inner life, Shields's "portrait" – which is really something short of a full-scale biography – is nonetheless captivating.

He explains how Lee's father and Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote morphed into the fictional characters Atticus Finch and Dill Harris. He elucidates Lee's trip from New York City to rural Kansas with Capote to help him research what would become the acclaimed book "In Cold Blood."

Over the years, some have suggested that Lee contributed so heavily to "In Cold Blood" that she should have received equal billing with Capote. But in what Shields portrays as a betrayal of a lifelong friendship, Capote minimized Lee's role in the writing of the book. Shields believes that Capote, protective of his own myth and jealous of Lee's "overnight" success that was anything but, was unwilling to share the glory. Capote knew that Lee, the loyal scout, would not have protested publicly, Shields postulates.

Reinventing himself as a sleuth to learn about the Capote episode and more, Shields located hundreds of people from Lee's life. He joined an online reunion service; he sought the names of classmates and teachers in Lee's school yearbooks; he searched archives around the nation for her correspondence. He visited the places she lived and worked to absorb atmospheres, to empathize, to identify with Lee.

Despite all the admirable labor, Shields raises more questions about Lee's life than he provides answers. That is not all bad. He does manage to turn the ghostly into a real-life personality, but then he leaves readers to their own speculation as to why the famous novelist's life turned out so differently from what her adoring public had expected.

Steve Weinberg is a biographer in Columbia, Mo.

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