Thursday, March 22, 2007
Shields, Charles J. Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. As I mentioned earlier, I liked the introduction very much and the first chapter not at all. The second chapter improved my attitude, and eventually I settled in and became quite absorbed. Nelle Harper Lee was a private person, who after 1964 avoided interviews, making this biography quite difficult--especially as she also had requested that close friends and family members not grant interviews. Although there was no direct contact with Lee, Shields' research appears to have gathered almost anything that was ever printed about her.
What Shields has accumulated does present a more unified version of Lee than can be found elsewhere; his attitude is respectful and his interest genuine...even if he adds nothing much new to the story Nelle Harper Lee.
I enjoyed the sketchy information on her childhood and friendship with Truman Capote. Her attitudes about writing and her efforts in taking the short stories she wrote and forcing them to coalesce into a novel with a central theme are very interesting, as are her friendships with the Browns and with Maurice Craine and his wife, who provided both emotional support and the opportunity for periods of uninterrupted writing. Without the support of these friends, To Kill a Mockingbird might never have existed.
The sections dealing with the research for In Cold Blood, and Lee's ability to get people to open up and talk show were particularly interesting to me. I read In Cold Blood when it was first published, and still have some vivid memories all these years later. It was Nelle's personality that won people over, and enabled Capote to develop friendships with people like Al Dewey and his wife. To Kill A Mockingbird won the Pulitzer before In Cold Blood was completed, andCapote was, not surprisingly, intensely jealous. In many ways, Capote's own success led to his downfall through drugs and alcohol, while Nelle's success led to a decline in their friendship because of Capote's jealousy.
Shields also had some interesting information on the making of the movie version of the book. Lee was not initially in favor of Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus; she not only came around, but was convinced that Peck "was" Atticus. The friendship between Nelle and Gregory Peck continued long after the film; he asked her to join him as a member of The National Council of the Arts where she spoke seldom, but what little she said gained the respect and attention of the other members.
There are no huge revelations in the book, no startling revelation about why the second novel never materialized, but it was an interesting and enjoyable read about the author of one of my favorite books and one of my favorite films. While there was nothing earthshaking, the gradual accumulation of details kept me interested.
Nonfiction. Biography. 2006. 285 pages + extensive bibliographic Notes.