Saturday, May 1, 2010


Any Good Books,
May 2010

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
Charles J. Shields (Henry Holt, 2006)

It’s a pleasing literary oddity that Harper Lee and Truman Capote shared a small-time childhood, and grew up to be such different kinds of Famous Writers: he, one of the most ardent self-promoters the literary world has known, as famous for parties he threw as for books he wrote; she, the author of one of the most highly acclaimed, widely read, and influential novels of the twentieth century, but somewhat overwhelmed by the resulting acclaim.

Mockingbird, Charles Shields’s unauthorized biography of Nelle Harper Lee, is packed with such gentle ironies. Capote had already published his first book when Lee left college to try the writing life, so his example may have proved to her that such a thing could happen; he read parts of To Kill a Mockingbird; and he incidentally introduced her to Michael and Joy Brown. The Browns, having come into a windfall, gave Lee the money to concentrate on writing for a whole year, without having to work at a job.

But the most direct literary assistance went the other way: without Lee’s help, Capote would not have gained entry to the inner life of Finney County, Kansas, and In Cold Blood would not have gotten off the ground. So, in addition to being the mother of one of the greatest books of its century, Harper Lee was the midwife to one of her friend’s most notable works. (By this time the reader has seen enough of him not to be surprised that his thanks are perfunctory.)

To Kill a Mockingbird, meanwhile, won the 1961 Pulitzer prize, and was featured by all the book clubs. It sold 2.5 million copies the first year, and some thirty million more, since. Shields observes, “...almost from the day of its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird took off, but gradually left its author behind.” Her second novel never saw the light of day, whether because of the time spent prize-collecting and movie-making, or helping Capote do research in Kansas, or, just as likely, the feeling that there was, after such success, nowhere to go but down. She was, to herself, a hard act to follow.
Alan Pakula’s production of the movie (and Horton Foote’s screenplay) subjected the book to the tightening and rebalancing necessary to bring in a reasonable running time; the three years of the books action become one year; and, at Gregory Peck’s urging, the dramatic focus fell more heavily on the trial, and much less on the lives of the children. Peck was probably right about that, cinematically speaking--and he won an Academy Award for the performance.

Now in her eighties, Lee still lives in Monroeville, where her book has become a cottage industry, the way Anne of Green Gables has for Prince Edward Island. In the twenty-five years between the action of the novel and its publication, Monroeville had modernized too much to be useable for filming. Since then economic progress has stagnated, and it’s returned to being something of a backwater. Since 1990, the town has produced an annual play of the book, bringing even more pilgrims to town. How trying it must be for Lee to go out to breakfast, and meet the millionth person who can’t help gushing about the book, and demanding to know why there wasn’t another.

Of course, as an unauthorized biography, Mockingbird is itself such an intrusion; our curiosity is natural, and perhaps this book is the safest distance from which to satisfy it. But if you’d like to be perfectly sure of being polite, don’t read it.

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