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Book Review - Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee  

Author: Charles J. Shields ©2006
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
ISBN-13:978-0-7394-7846-2  324 Pages

Fifty-one years after the publication of her Pulitzer Prizewinning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, author Harper Lee is again claiming the headlines. CBS News and the Sun-Sentinel both ran stories this month about President Obama honoring Harper Lee with the National Medal of Arts. Ms. Lee, aged 84, perhaps one of America’s greatest living authors, did not attend the ceremony. Her lack of attendance is no surprise to those of us who have read Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields. 

Mr. Shields writes, in the introduction to Mockingbird, that his book “aims to capture a life but is not a conventional biography, because – despite her novels huge impact – Lee’s writing life has been brief, and her personal life has been intensely private.” Mr. Shields goes on to explain his decision to write the book and the reasoning and research used to compose it. A beautiful and detailed introduction to the book sets the reader up to expect a hazy, distorted picture of Ms. Lee. However, the book is anything but that: clear and concise – weaving together research, commentary, and a warm narrative – the book transports the reader into a journey through life with Harper Lee. The authors desire to “capture a life” is eloquently and meticulously met in the pages that follow.            
                                   

This 324 page book provides a multi-layered picture of the woman that is Nelle Harper Lee: modern-day recluse, prior college drop-out, Pulitzer Prizewinning author, lonely airline ticket girl in New York, close childhood friend and research assistant to Truman Capote, tomboyish girl from the South, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, fervent church attendee, and winner of The National Medal of Arts. Lee, the enigmatic author of To Kill A Mockingbird, is simultaneously defined by these designations while remaining an individual that will not be subjugated to any one title that describes her. 

Mr. Shields, in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, brings the feisty, Southern writer to life for his readers. She is a woman we can admire and understand. She is an uncommon author uninterested in wealth or movie-star status. She is simply Nelle, an author seeking to explore her talent and write something meaningful about the world and time in which she came of age. To Kill A Mockingbird is no longer just a Southern novel, but is transformed into an inevitable work of art by this writer. Her love of place, family, and the strong desire for empathetic justice fills the book as it fills her life. The clarity of Lee’s character shines in Shields book as he delves into the psychology of the time in which Ms. Lee wrote and the emotional connection she felt to time and place as displayed in her writing. 

Lee’s one and only book, To Kill A Mockingbird, is a book of substantial importance in American literature. It delves into the psyche and behavior in the American South during the period of racial unrest and blatant discrimination that characterized the decades of the 1950′s and ‘60′s. The book was a sensational hit during it’s time as summarized by Biography.com:

In July 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was published and picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild. A condensed version of the story appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine. The work’s central character, a young girl nicknamed Scout, was not unlike Lee in her youth…. part of the novel reflected racial prejudices in the South…. attorney,…Atticus Finch tries to help a black man who has been charged with raping a white woman to get a fair trial and to prevent him from being lynched by angry whites in a small town.

Cover of

Cover of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

The following year, To Kill a Mockingbird won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and several other literary awards. Horton Foote wrote a screenplay based on the book and used the same title for the 1962 film adaptation. Lee visited the set during filming and did a lot of interviews to support the film. Earning eight Academy Award nominations, the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird won four awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch. The character of Atticus is said to have been based on Lee’s father. 

The popularity of Lee’s book in the 1960′s demonstrates a somewhat perfect timing in publishing history. To Kill A Mockingbird captured a moment of Southern and national history that would soon change, but her application of the broad themes of good and bad, fair and unfair, to the story created a timeless, universal novel. As an important piece of American literature, To Kill A Mockingbird demonstrates the fight for good over evil in the world, and advances the premise that one person can make a difference if he will only step forward and act on his deepest convictions. 

To Kill a Mockingbird

Image via Wikipedia

 

It is this literary-cultural duality that makes Lee’s work eternal. And, Shields adeptly captures this aspect of Lee, her life and work, in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. It is an intimately beautiful portrait where Shields artistically draws Lee as a presence larger than the time and culture she wrote about. In the end, his portrait succeeds as he introduces the reader to a Harper Lee that is as boundless and enduring as her novel.

 Sources: 

1. Madison, Lucy. “Obama honors Meryl Streep, Harper Lee, Philip Roth, Quincy Jones and others with National Medals of Arts and Humanities.” CBS News Story online. March 2011. Http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20038421-503544.html (March 7, 2011) 

2. Kellogg, Carolyn. “Harper Lee to receive National Medal of Arts.” Los Angeles Times. March 2011.
http://www.sun-sentinel.com/entertainment/sns-lat-harper-lee-to-receive-national-medal-of-arts-
20110301,0,5076637.story. (March 8, 2011)

 3. Harper Lee Biography. “Harper Lee Biography.” Biography.com. March 2011.
Http://www.biography.com/articles/harper-lee9377012?part=1 (March 9, 2011) 

4. The Associated Press. “Harper Lee Writes Rare Item for O Magazine.” Washington Post. June 2006. Http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2006/06/
26/AR2006062601039.html
(March 8, 2011) 

5. Charles J. Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.(New York: Henry Holt and Co., LLC, 2006).

Reprinted from Whippoorwill: an online literary journal, Spring 2011 issue. Original source at http://whippoorwilljournal.com/issue/whippoorwill/article/book-review-mockingbird-a-portrait-of-harper-lee