A 'Portrait' of Harper Lee that leaves out the most intriguing parts of the picture

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Charles J. Shields


Henry Holt / 352 pages / $25

Questions have surrounded Harper Lee's iconic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird - and its reclusive author - since its publication.


The most consistent query has been whether Lee wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Rumors that her then-best friend Truman Capote was the real author have persisted for years, fueled in part by Lee's inability to finish another book despite claims for many years that she wrote 10 to 12 hours each day.

Scholars of both writers have concluded that although Capote might have had a hand in the editing and shaping of the novel, his style and Lee's are too divergent to consider him the author. Conversely, Lee's copious notes on the Clutter family during their trip to Kansas to research In Cold Blood reveal that she had a significant part in his most important work, and thus had a true writer's sensibility. She was no one-hit wonder.

So why did Lee, now 81, become such a recluse? Why retreat from international acclaim? Was she put off by the dissolution of her friend, Capote, attributing it to fame? Or was the limelight just too much for the small-town girl from Monroeville, Ala.?

This and many other tantalizing questions about Lee are, regrettably, left unanswered by Charles J. Shields in Mockingbird, his seemingly exhaustive yet curiously vacant biography of one of America's most beloved and complicated living writers.

Millions of copies of To Kill a Mockingbird are in print. It is the most taught book in American schools after Shakespeare and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, according to the National Council of Teachers of English. Having taught the book for more than two decades, I consider it to be one of the most important novels of American literature and American life, a visceral tale of a uniquely American battle between good and evil, right and wrong.

Lee's novel may lack the rich subtleties of Faulkner's and the nuanced complexities of Toni Morrison's works on America's racial battleground, but it is in its simplicity of voice and construction that To Kill a Mockingbird makes its dynamic statements about stark inequities in a nation built on the concept of individual liberty.

I was eager to read this biography, intrigued as I have always been by Lee. I looked forward to a rendering of the woman that plumbed the complexities of her life and times as well as her work. Who wouldn't want to know more about the woman whose vision created this book (and importantly informed Capote's most famous work) that has so impacted American readers for nearly 50 years?

I wish Mockingbird were a better-written book, that its inherent sloppiness (names and dates incorrect, an inexcusable lapse in these days of search engines) and basic lack of scholarship didn't matter, that the mean-spiritedness of the last few pages were an acceptable way to end a biography.


Shields is a writer of nonfiction books for young adults, and To Kill a Mockingbird has often (and incorrectly) been perceived as a young-adult novel because of its youthful protagonist. But Shields never gets a clear handle on his subject, either as a child (despite most of the book focusing on her childhood) or as an adult (without Capote's papers, there would be little of interest in Shields' book; he covers the last 35 years of her life in fewer than 20 pages).

And yet, Shields interviewed 600 people who met Lee at some point in her life (most of these recountings are utterly vapid), read everything written about her (also mostly meaningless) and cobbled it all together into a semblance of a life.

Shields never seems to know exactly how to write about Lee's book or about Lee herself. The inconsistency of the tone is at first merely irritating but becomes downright grating. Shields seems to come at his subject with a simmering undercurrent of anger about Lee: He likes the child but dislikes the adult and delights in reporting endless examples of her bad humor, refusal to grant interviews (yet he tells us she inexplicably tells all to a waiter in New York) and churlish reclusion. The coup de grace lies in the final pages, which are given over to a diatribe by a civil rights attorney about the failures of the book to set a better standard about civil rights advocacy!

What Shields fails to tell us about Lee - who refused his many attempts to interview her and urged her friends and confidants to refuse to talk to him as well - is manifold. This is less a true biography and more a work of speculation. Did the never-married Lee have an affair with her married agent? Was there really a second book that was stolen by a burglar, as suggested by Lee's sister Alice? What brought about the final rupture between Capote and Lee? What caused her determined reclusion?

The importance of Lee's novel in the lexicon of American letters necessitates a solid biography. Lee is both American icon and literary mystery. Shields, alas, does not reveal her. The reader is left with one enticing chapter (the section on In Cold Blood) and many others stuffed with the sort of rambling, gossipy reminiscences one overhears in small town coffee shops or bus stops. Lee deserves better, and so do we.

Victoria A. Brownworth is a syndicated columnist and the author and editor of 24 books. Her forthcoming collection, "Day of the Dead and Other Stories," will be published later this year.