Harper Lee and that eternal question

There is only one significant reason to read a biography of Harper Lee, the author of the wildly successful, Pulitzer-winning “To Kill A Mockingbird,” published in 1960.

You read it in hopes of understanding why Lee, soon to be 86, never produced a second novel.  And, perhaps, you read it to see if persistent rumors the book was actually written by her late friend and childhood playmate, Truman Capote, have validity.

Shortly after reading “To Kill” last fall for the first time and immensely enjoying it,  I purchased a used paperback copy of Charles J. Shields’s “Mockingbird:  A Portrait of Harper Lee” (2006) and plowed into it.

Shields took on a difficult task in the writing.  Lee, following her long-standing policy, would not be interviewed or cooperate in any way.  Shields did an admirable job then of researching and talking with Lee’s friends and acquaintances.  If not conclusive, it was an interesting read.

Further complicating the task for Shields is Lee’s retiring, matronly persona.  No Hemingway here, no big game hunting in Africa, no war coverage under her belt.  She apparently lives a simple, quiet life, unmarried all these years, drinking heavily and dividing time between an apartment in New York City and her hometown in Monroeville, Alabama.

That does not prevent the biography from engaging moments.  Like Nelle’s role in Capote’s opus, “In Cold Blood,” which receives a full chapter, “See NL’s Notes.”  Lee accompanied Capote to Kansas in late 1959 to help him research the murder of the Clutter family.  She did much of the work but got little credit from Capote when “In Cold Blood” was published, a situation that put a permanent dent in their relationship.

The film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” is enlightening.  It reveals how the actor Gregory Peck manipulated the focus to his role of the lawyer father, Atticus, and away from the children, Scout and Jem, as Lee had written.  Lee was enamored of Peck and apparently had no objections about the shift in emphasis.

Unfortunately, Shields can not shed much light on why the “second novel” fizzled out.  The reader is left to form an opinion unaided by substantial facts.  It is unknown how far Lee got into the writing.  Or if she began writing it at all.  Shields dug up two possibilities, both hearsay.

One, supposedly suggested by Lee’s older sister Alice, was a novel about deer hunting, harkening back, Shields writes, “to the winter of 1961 when Nelle refused to shoot a deer.”  Peter Griffiths, a BBC producer, said Alice told him “just as Nelle was finishing the novel, a burglar broke into her apartment and stole the manuscript.”  Sounds fishy to me.

Then there was talk of a “nonfiction novel” ala Capote.  The working title was “The Reverend,” involving a serial murder case in Alabama.

Shields does not attempt to describe one important aspect of Nelle’s life, her transition from a fire-breathing rebel as a child to a rather docile, tame adult.  Also I was disappointed the biography mostly avoided the author’s love life, her sexuality.  A “chaste love affair” with her longtime friend and agent, Maurice Crain, is Shields’s feeble enquiry into that part of Nelle’s life.

That Capote wrote part or all of “To Kill A Mockingbird” receives no support from Shields, though in light of everything it remains a titillating piece of gossip.  Capote never claimed credit for Lee’s book, but he never denied his role in writing it.

As for the all-important question, I choose to believe Lee was over-whelmed by the success of “To Kill A Mockingbird”  and was fearful a second novel would in comparison be humiliating.

Life is smoke and mirrors.  Sometimes you are left with nothing but the art.  And in the case of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” that is enough.

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