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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.


  1. An interesting movie on the making of In Cold Blood is Infamous where Sandra Bullock plays Nelle Lee. I liked it better than the Phillip Seymour Hoffman version Capote released a couple years ago. It was very close to the way she was portrayed in the book. I am so glad you soldiered on. :)

  2. Hmm, maybe I'll give this a read in conjunction with Gerald Clarke's Capote (which is in my Nonfiction stack for Joy's challenge). My husband read Mockingbird, but I don't remember how he felt about it.

  3. ah, yes. The paperback for "Mockingbird" comes out later this year. I've been waiting to get to it for so long. Was a little apprehensive when I first read how the first chapter did not look promising.

    I love "To Kill the Mockingbird."

  4. joemmama - I need to watch Infamous; I enjoyed Capote, but someone else mentioned that they preferred Infamous. Yes, I ended up enjoying Mockingbird.

    Les - I think that would make a good combination! I like seeing things from different points of view. I think I'll add Clarke's book to my list of biographies!

    Orpheus - It does help draw together the little information available about Lee, and it was better than the first chapter led me to believe.

  5. I'm relieved to hear that this one panned out after all, Jenclair. I'm supposed to pick it up at the library on Saturday and hope to read it in the next couple of weeks. Thanks for the review.

  6. Sounds very interesting. I fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird last year when I read it for the first time and I really enjoyed the film version as well. Its a shame she didn't write more books.

  7. Sam - I'm eager to see how you feel about it!

    Carl - TKM is such a beautiful book, and the film was a terrific adaptation--partly because the casting was so perfect. It is a shame that Lee didn't write anymore, but what a great one to have written!

  8. I am glad you read "Mockingbird". I did too recently and "Mockingbird" led me to read "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the FIRST time. TKAMB..what a wonderful book.

    And you have reminded me of how much I enjoy Flannery O'Conner. I have a book of her short stories on my bookshelf that i plan to read next.

  9. Chancy - To Kill a Mockingbird is a marvelous book. Funny how we come to books, sometimes fiction first, nonfiction later, and sometimes the other way around.

    I usually get to the nonfiction later, but it leads me right back to the fiction!

  10. Ah...back on my summer list. :) Thanks for the honest opinion.

  11. maggie - I think you'll like it; I'm glad I gave it a second chance after putting it aside for a while.