I have recently re-read To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, while also reading the biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. I hadn’t read the novel since high school. I’ve seen the fine film based on the novel, of course, but reading the book again is a different matter altogether. I’d completely forgotten that Harper Lee grew up next door to Truman Capote (then Truman Persons) and that they were great friends. Just before Harper became famous for her novel, she acted as a researcher for Truman’s In Cold Blood. It is truly amazing that such a small town produced two literary giants.
I guess they found each other to be kindred spirits, since both of them were misfits in their tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama. They were different from everyone else. Harper was a rebel in school and at home (I had always assumed that she was shy), and Truman was different because . . . well, he was just Truman! Both of them were profoundly affected by living in Monroeville, and Harper based the town and citizens of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird on the town and citizens of Monroeville. Truman, in fact, was the model for the character of Dill. At least two other distinguished writers, Mark Childress and Cynthia Tucker, grew up in Monroeville. Astonishing!
The novel, of course, is one of the great American novels. There is a reason why it remains so popular today, and why it is taught in many schools in the United States. Shields wrote the biography without Harper Lee’s permission, and therefore it is an unauthorized work. However, he makes a great effort to explore the mystery surrounding the elusive Harper Lee. I found it fascinating. She is not a recluse, she just is tired of answering the same questions over and over. She won’t answer questions about the book, but still shows up to accept various awards.
Harper worked for years on TKAM, and never published another novel. In a way, she reminds me of Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind. They were both Southern female writers who had one novel published. Both books became publishing phenomenons and became the best-selling novel of their time (each has sold about 30 million copies!) They both won the Pulitzer Prize. Both never published another novel. Both had ambivalent feelings about their success.
It is obvious that Daniels did a great deal of research for his biography, and one that makes a valuable contribution to the mystery surrounding a great American novel. I found Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee to be a fascinating glimpse of an interesting woman who wrote a timeless novel that is filled with unforgettable characters, empathy, and a deep sense of humor.
Disclosure: I purchased these books.