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FW: Review-a-Day: Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

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  • Amos J Wright
    ... From: reviews@powells.com [mailto:reviews@powells.com] Sent: Thursday, August 24, 2006 1:00 AM To: Amos J Wright Subject: Review-a-Day: Mockingbird: A
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      Sent: Thursday, August 24, 2006 1:00 AM
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      Subject: Review-a-Day: Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee


      Today's Review From
      The New Republic Online

      Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
      by Charles J. Shields

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      Austen in Alabama
      A review by Deborah Friedell

      Why are there writers who stop writing? Writers of remarkable
      ability who claim depletion of talent, or desertion by the muse,
      or even -- incredibly -- that they would just like to try something
      else? Their refusal or inability to follow up on their successes
      provokes forsaken readers into demanding explanations, the more
      fantastic the better. Failing for decades to publish a novel after
      Call It Sleep, Henry Roth came up with a variety of excuses, including
      sore elbow, anti-Semitism, and laziness. Nothing satisfied until
      he offered an explanation so hideous it had to be true: he was
      essentially an autobiographical writer, and, unable to write about
      the sexual abuse he had inflicted on his sister, he could not
      write at all. The professor in Paul Auster's novel The Book of
      Illusions is the author of a "meditation on silence," a book on
      Rimbaud, Dashiell Hammett, Laura Riding, and J.D. Salinger, "poets
      and novelists of uncommon brilliance who, for one reason or another,
      had stopped." Their silence is simultaneously maddening and appealing.
      Having created hits, they would not publish worse. To some of
      their readers, their silence only makes them more powerful, gods
      refusing to show their faces, too good for the world.

      In their company must surely reside Harper Lee. That she wrote
      only one book, nearly universally beloved, is perhaps the best-known
      biographical fact about her; for some of her readers, it is the
      only fact. Charles J. Shields has now produced the first biography
      of the novelist, who, unsurprisingly, refused to approve of the
      project, or avail herself for any interviews, or sanction Shields
      to quote from her writing. Yet Shields is unstinting in his admiration
      for Lee -- the biography oozes love -- and his justification for
      writing an unauthorized life is persuasive: "I believe it is important
      to record Lee's story while there are still a few people alive
      who were part of it and can remember."

      Nearly all biographies contain invasions of privacy, and though
      Shields's book is hardly a shocker, no biography of Lee could
      avoid accusations of betrayal and paradox. Lee is intensely private,
      and of the many lessons promoted in the exceedingly didactic To
      Kill a Mockingbird, the final and most deeply felt is of the moral
      importance of leaving shy people alone. In the closing moments
      of the novel, Atticus Finch and the Maycomb County sheriff prepare
      to lie about the death of Bob Ewell so that Boo Radley, the good
      man who killed him, can be spared: "draggin' him with his shy
      ways into the limelight -- to me, that's a sin."

      So there is something perverse about lovers of the novel flocking
      to read an unauthorized biography of its reclusive author. But
      unlike Boo Radley, Harper Lee is not a private citizen. The fame
      of her one novel ensured that she would never stop being a famous
      writer, giving her a role that she could never abdicate, indelible
      to forty-six years of not publishing another book. This summer,
      a New York Times headline announced that "Harper Lee Writes Again."
      She had written, for the July issue of O: The Oprah Magazine,
      a short and entirely unrevealing letter about the joys of childhood
      reading. ("Dear Oprah, Do you remember when you learned to read,
      or like me, can you not even remember a time when you didn't know
      how?") So little had we come to expect from Lee, now eighty, that
      news of this letter was sufficient to make the papers. The Associated
      Press announced that by publishing it Oprah had achieved "something
      of a literary coup."

      But Lee had once promised to do more. For years following the
      publication of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, she assured interviewers
      that she was hard at work. "I would like to leave some record
      of the kind of life that existed in a very small world. I hope
      to do this in several novels -- to chronicle something that seems
      to be very quickly going down the drain." She wanted, she said,
      to become "the Jane Austen of south Alabama." But then, Austen
      published anonymously. And she never dealt with Hollywood.

      Just as Austen was convinced that "three or four families in
      a country village is the very thing to work on," Lee once told
      an interviewer that the country "naturally produces more writers
      than, say, an environment like 82nd Street in New York. In small
      town life and in rural life you know your neighbors." The Alabama
      town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird is a proxy for Monroeville,
      where Lee was raised and where she currently resides. Her father's
      family had lived in the American South from the late seventeenth
      century; and, though not descended from Robert E. Lee, as is sometimes
      reported, her paternal grandfather was a Confederate veteran of
      twenty-two battles, including Gettysburg. Her maternal grandparents
      -- whose last name was Finch -- had owned a tremendous Alabama
      cotton plantation. Nelle Harper and her siblings knew that they
      were -- as Atticus tells his children -- "not from run-of-the-mill
      people," but the "product of several generations' gentle breeding."

      Lee always maintained that Atticus was modeled on her father --
      so much so that in order to prepare for the film adaptation of
      the novel, Gregory Peck went to Monroeville to study him. Although
      Amasa Coleman Lee, called A.C., did not always behave like Atticus
      -- he insisted that the progressive Methodist minister Ray Whatley,
      who would later work with Martin Luther King Jr., "get off the
      'social justice' and get back on the gospel" -- it was his experience
      of hopelessly defending black men unable to get a fair trial that
      his daughter would partly appropriate in her fiction. He did it
      only once, in 1919, when he was court-appointed to defend two
      men on murder charges. His clients were found guilty and hanged;
      their bodies were mutilated and their body parts packaged and
      mailed to the family of their alleged victim, proof that justice
      had been done. Whether A.C. Lee's attitude was like Atticus's
      -- resolute, telling his daughter that "simply because we were
      licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not
      to try to win" -- Lee's biographer cannot tell us.

      As for Lee's mother, Shields argues that the absence of Scout's
      mother in To Kill a Mockingbird is revealing -- that Lee wrote
      her out of the novel because of her conflicted feelings for a
      woman who seems to have suffered from severe mental illness, rarely
      leaving the house and causing scenes when she did. Truman Capote,
      one of Lee's closest childhood friends (and the model for the
      novel's Dill), told his biographer Gerald Clarke that Lee's mother
      had twice tried to drown her daughter in the bathtub: "When they
      talk about Southern grotesque, they're not kidding!"

      But the terrifying, crazed mother has no place in the kind of
      novel that Lee was constructing. A Charles Saxon cartoon from
      1961 depicts two women in a bookshop, one holding a copy of To
      Kill a Mockingbird and telling the other, "It's about the South,
      but it's not -- you know -- Southern." In many ways, To Kill a
      Mockingbird is a criticism of the southern novel as much as it
      is a criticism of southern society. Boo Radley, thought to be
      some kind of Gothic monstrosity, is just a shy man. Tom Robinson's
      deformity -- his crippled left side and small shriveled hand --
      results merely from a boyhood accident with a cotton gin. And
      instead of making him a freak, Tom's withered arm proves -- to
      us, if not to the all-white jurymen -- that he was incapable of
      raping Mayella Ewell, as she claimed.

      Lee left Alabama in 1949, when at twenty-three she dropped out
      of law school to move to New York and try for a writer's life,
      despite having written little more than squibs for the University
      of Alabama's student humor magazine. She worked as an airline
      ticketing agent until friends lent her enough money so that, by
      living frugally, she could work only at her writing for a year.
      By the end of 1957, on the basis of preliminary chapters for a
      novel then titled "Atticus," she was offered a publishing contract
      with Lippincott. According to Shields, Lee provided her editor,
      the talented Tay Hohoff, with the shape of a narrative and fragmentary
      anecdotes about her hometown, and over the next two years Hohoff
      helped her to transform them into a coherent work.

      Those who turn to To Kill a Mockingbird after some years away
      are usually surprised by how long it takes for Tom Robinson's
      trial to begin. It is still the novel's great subject, but the
      first hundred pages are dedicated to Lee's depiction of life in
      Maycomb -- sleepy and poor, but charming, where for church fund-raisers
      the Methodists challenge the Baptists to touch football, and all
      the fathers play. This fascination with small-town life seems
      to have been what sent her to Holcomb, Kansas, during the months
      between finishing To Kill a Mockingbird and awaiting its publication,
      when she left New York to assist Capote in researching what they
      thought would be an article on a small town's response to the
      murder of a farmer and his family. Both Shields and Capote's biographer
      agree that while Holcomb residents initially kept Capote at a
      distance (some suspecting that a man so unusual-looking, preternaturally
      tiny with a disconcertingly babyish voice, might well be the one
      who had killed the Clutters), they trusted Lee -- what the case's
      lead detective later called her "down-home style," her "knack
      for saying the right things. Once the ice was broken, I was told,
      Capote could get people to talking." Although Capote's refusal
      to give Lee more credit for In Cold Blood eventually caused a
      rift in their friendship, Capote once admitted that he "could
      never have done the job" of the book "without her deep probing
      of the people of that little town."

      In Maycomb, all the great virtues are to be found in miniature.
      A terminally ill woman who decides to break her morphine addiction
      so that she can die "beholden to nothing and nobody" is described
      as "the bravest person I ever knew." Atticus is a Christian out
      of a morality play, who when Bob Ewell spits tobacco juice in
      his face tells his children that he's grateful for it: "I destroyed
      his last shred of credibility at that trial, if he had any to
      begin with. The man had to have some kind of comeback, his kind
      always does. So if spitting in my face and threatening me saved
      Mayella Ewell one extra beating, that's something I'll gladly
      take." There is nothing subtle about him. His goodness is as
      unbesmirched
      as Bob Ewell's evil, but that is the source of his appeal.

      In the American Film Institute's list of the greatest movie heroes,
      Atticus was ranked first, followed by other impossible men: Indiana
      Jones, Superman, Zorro. In adapting the book for film, the director
      Robert Mulligan knew that there was no need to make Atticus more
      complicated: he is a "fantasy figure -- the father we would all
      have liked to have had." And his goodness is what readers cling
      to. To claim that he lacks nuance would be to deny the potential
      greatness of men, particularly white men. The moment after the
      jury renders its verdict, dramatized in the film, when all the
      black spectators in the courthouse rise to their feet in homage
      to Atticus -- "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'"
      -- was the shot that Peck told friends had won him an Academy
      Award.

      Much of Lee's novel is moral pap: "Naw, Jem, I think there's just
      one kind of folks. Folks." Or: "Jem, how can you hate Hitler so
      bad an' then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home."
      Or: "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along
      a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand
      a person until you consider things from his point of view ...
      until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." The conclusion
      to the novel's most dramatic moment -- when Scout shames a lynch
      mob into disbanding -- leads Atticus to the irresistible induction
      that "maybe we need a police force of children." One desperately
      wants to believe this world, where all it takes at a lynching
      is the presence "of an eight-year-old child to bring 'em to their
      senses."

      But who can believe it? This is escapist literature, spectacularly
      sentimental, and all the more seductive for coming in the guise
      of the realistic novel, conveyed by a narration that is sharp
      and often very funny, illustrated by characters so skillfully
      drawn that they are nearly convincing even when they act impossibly.
      Even the jury's guilty verdict is given a positive gloss at the
      end. A sympathetic neighbor tells Scout that "I was sittin' there
      on the porch last night, waiting. I waited and waited to see you
      all come down the sidewalk, and as I waited I thought, Atticus
      Finch won't win, he can't win, but he's the only man in these
      parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And
      I thought to myself, well, we're making a step -- it's just a
      baby step, but it's a step." This is propaganda, but for the right
      side. Lee is brilliant at this sort of thing; but when propaganda
      is brilliant, even for the right side, it is demagoguery.

      When Lee became famous -- when her book was chosen by the
      Book-of-the-Month
      Club and the Literary Guild, when it made the best-seller lists
      and was translated into forty languages, when she won the Pulitzer
      Prize and started speaking at university commencements -- she
      became less the writer of To Kill a Mockingbird than its spokeswoman.
      Her few published writings after it are all extensions of the
      brand -- essays extolling the virtues of childhood, the importance
      of loving one's neighbor and one's country. In "When Children
      Discover America," published in McCall's in 1965, on the rewards
      of childhood travel, she writes of how "In the Far West, I would
      show children San Francisco. The Chinese people there are such
      wonderful Americans.... Younger children may not respond in words,
      but they will drink everything in with their eyes, and fill their
      minds with awareness and wonder. It's an experience they will
      enjoy and remember all their lives." Would this have been published
      if she weren't "Harper Lee"? Or "Love -- in Other Words" in Vogue:
      "There is only one kind of love -- love. But the different
      manifestations
      of love are uncountable: At an unfamiliar night noise a mother
      will spring from bed.... What is love? Many things are like love....
      Every creation of man's mind that has withstood the buffeting
      of time was born of love." This is the work of a writer who is
      unable to stop overhearing herself, who is consumed by thoughts
      of how she will sound to the thousands of impressionable people
      who send her fan mail. Her sentences -- "The Chinese people there
      are such wonderful Americans" -- are no longer the language of
      a novelist.

      Shields suggests that Hohoff's retirement from Lippincott in the
      early 1970s stymied Lee from finishing her second novel, which
      is certainly plausible, but Shields's knowledge of Hohoff and
      Lee's relationship is too poorly sourced to be of much use. The
      looseness of Shields's research reveals itself in the awkwardness
      of his diction, the forced connections Shields makes to connect
      the few facts he does know: "No doubt a fleeting thought of Miss
      Watson crossed Nelle's mind as she entered the epicenter of English
      intellectual life," he writes (Miss Watson, Shields thrillingly
      discovers, was the name of her high school English teacher). And
      he is probably not trying to be coy when he tells us that "I cannot
      say if she is homosexual (she was friends with Capote and other
      openly gay people)." Biographers must make do with what they can
      get, but Shields has brought so little to this project -- no general
      knowledge of Monroeville's culture, nothing on 1950s publishing
      -- that the book often reads like little more than an assemblage
      of other people's newspaper articles. (In the book's introduction,
      Shields boasts that through "an online database at the University
      of Virginia, I located perhaps one hundred articles from national
      newspapers about To Kill a Mockingbird and e-mailed them to myself.")
      Shields's chapter on the novel's film adaptation will seem awfully
      familiar to anyone who has encountered his main sources, the director's
      and producer's commentaries on the DVD.

      Shields mentions allegations that Capote, who read the novel in
      manuscript and made editing suggestions, was its true author,
      and denies them by relating that Hohoff's son-in-law "said that
      such a deception wouldn't have occurred to Nelle" and by the argument
      that "given Truman's inability to keep anybody's secrets, it's
      highly unlikely that he wouldn't have claimed right of authorship
      after the novel became famous." Shields might have marshaled more
      cogent evidence, but something about giving the credit to Capote
      would probably still appeal. He spent his childhood summers in
      Monroeville, where he would set his novel The Grass Harp; and
      if you squint the right way, the courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird
      resembles the Kansas courtroom of In Cold Blood.

      But what spurs this rumor has little to do with similarities in
      content or outlook or idiom (few, on all counts). It is rather
      that Capote seems a born storyteller, who channeled his childhood
      grief and adult ostracism into a series of books, and whose career
      ended by drugs and alcohol, not a quiet stepping away. He, and
      not Lee, is what an artist is supposed to look like; a pity his
      work is of questionable merit. A biographer needs to shape the
      stories of a life into a narrative that makes sense. Shields's
      biography is noteworthy only because it is the first. That a better
      one will emerge is inevitable so long as To Kill a Mockingbird
      remains compulsory reading for every twelve-year-old in America.

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