Mockingbird sings

The first biography of the reclusive Harper Lee shows that she contributed much more to "In Cold Blood" than we thought.

By Margot Mifflin

Published June 6, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

The good news is that Harper Lee is alive, living with her sister in their hometown of Monroeville, Ala. She hasn't published a book since her Pulitzer Prize-winning "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960), the most popular American novel of the 20th century (still beguiling nearly 1 million readers a year), which begat a film so true to its namesake that the two have merged in the public mind. The bad news is that she gave her last interview in 1964 and refused to cooperate with Charles Shields for this biography, which starts with a bang and ends with a desperate cry for help. Still, what "Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee" lacks in access, it makes up for in excellent timing and impressive research.

After the 2005 release of the film "Capote," with its frustratingly hazy depiction of Truman Capote's friend and "research assistant" Nelle (to friends) Harper (to readers) Lee, the door swung open for a biography. "Mockingbird" is the first, arriving just after she turned 80. Though it's ostensibly about the author, whose Alabama family and Southern racial consciousness inspired "To Kill a Mockingbird," it's also about Lee and Capote, childhood friends who grew up to become symbiotic figures, both personally and artistically, during the '60s. Both were precocious children out of step with their peers, whose slippery grip on gender was a social liability. As Shields puts it, "she was too rough for the girls, and he was too soft for the boys." Each had emotionally absent mothers: Capote's was a self-absorbed social climber; Lee's was chronically depressed, though in her more functional youth she'd played piano at Capote's 16-year-old mother's wedding. (To embroider this family quilt, Capote's father came on to Lee when she was a teenager and she responded by punching him in the nose; Capote hated Lee's gossipy mother, and parodied her, at age 10, in a story called "Mrs. Busybody.")

If the two shared what Lee called a "common anguish" and Capote dubbed "an apartness" in childhood, they were inverted artistically as adults: Each was fascinated by crime, but "In Cold Blood," Capote's genre-busting "non-fiction novel" about the murder of a Kansas family, exposed a world of random violence, presaging a future of rogue postal workers and murderous schoolchildren, while "To Kill a Mockingbird" painted a moral portrait of good and evil, leaving the reader comfortably nestled in the lap of righteousness. Shields doesn't frame it this way; his story is more anecdotal than analytical, but he gives you the raw material, neatly packaged, on which to base any number of term papers about the correlations between the two writers and their work. He answers several questions that have swirled around Lee and Capote (yes, the character Dill was based on Capote; no, Capote did not write part or all of "To Kill a Mockingbird"), and he introduces fresh information that puts a new spin on both authors. For example, Lee inspired Capote's character Ann "Jumbo" Finchburg, ("a sawed off but solid tomboy with an all-hell-let-loose wrestling technique") in his story "The Thanksgiving Visitor," as well as the boyish Idabel Tompkins of his novel "Other Voices, Other Rooms."

For fans of both Capote and "Capote," Shields' most salient revelation will be that Lee's contribution to "In Cold Blood" was much greater than the film conveys. First, Lee served as a social lubricant for Capote, who impressed Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective Harold Nye as "an absolute flake" in contrast to his assistant, who "looked like normal folk." Lead detective Alvin Dewey said, "If Capote came on as something of a shocker, she was there to absorb the shock." (He also called her a "good looker," though she was known for being frumpy.) More significantly, Capote relied on Lee not just for research, but also for characterization. "Nelle's gift for creating character sketches turned out to complement Truman's ability to recall remarks," writes Shields, reporting on the duo's first trip to Holcomb, Kan., to research the murders in 1959. "Many times over the next month, Capote's telegraphic descriptions of a conversation would end with 'See NL's notes' to remind him to use her insights later."

Lee noted that Dick Hickock's face, disfigured in a car accident, looked like someone had "cut it down the middle, then put it back together not quite in place." Capote wrote, "It was as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center." Capote paid the murderers $50 each to meet with him and Lee. In her notes about Hickock's demeanor during the interview, Lee wrote, "Never seen anyone so poised, relaxed, free & easy in the face of four 1st degree murder charges. He gave the impression of being completely in the moment, with no concern about tomorrow's troubles." Capote observed Hickock in prison: "Outwardly, Hickock seemed to one and all an unusually untroubled man."

Capote left out unflattering details about the Clutter family, some of which Lee had collected, because he needed his victims to look good. For example, Lee reported that the two surviving Clutter daughters showed up the day after their entire family was murdered and argued over who would take what, down to the kitchen utensils. Lee spoke to a family friend who recalled Nancy Clutter breaking down and crying about her mentally ill mother. And she wrote about how lonely and isolated Nancy was, asking, "How did she maintain the outward semblance of a wholesome, extremely bright and popular teenager without cracking at the seams? Her family life was ghastly." Capote sought the emotional truth of the Clutter murders, but, partly because of his careerism, he and Lee seem to have found two different stories.

Shields' chapter on "In Cold Blood" is almost worth the price alone, and makes you wonder why the film's producers didn't comb Capote's papers for material with Shields' thoroughness. He also draws compelling points of connection between Lee's own childhood and the events of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

For practical purposes, Atticus Finch was A.C. Lee, Harper Lee's father, a respected Monroeville lawyer who had defended two black men accused of murder, and lost. (Nelle's maternal grandfather was named Finch.) But the book's plot was based on a case in which a white jury convicted a black man of raping a white woman in Monroeville in 1934, causing local citizens to question the fairness of the decision. Shields notes, however, that A.C. Lee "only gradually rose to the moral standards of Atticus ... Like most men of his generation, he believed the current social order, segregation, was natural and created harmony between the races." He didn't become a civil rights advocate until the '50s. As a father, too, A.C. Lee was Atticus: firm, moral but never sanctimonious, and a bit old for fatherhood by the time Lee, the youngest of four children, was born. Gregory Peck met and studied him in preparation for the role of Atticus, calling him "a fine old gentleman of eighty-two, and truly sophisticated although he had never traveled more than a few miles from that small southern town."

And, of course, Scout was Lee. Her apparently bipolar mother, who died when Lee was 25, was a cipher (Lee dispensed with Scout's mother by killing her before the start of the novel). Like Scout, Lee was a precocious kid who called her teacher by her first name as she did her father, and brawled with boys. Capote claimed that the first third of the novel, in which the children taunt Boo Radley, was "quite literal and true." In some sense, Lee preserved her Scoutness into adulthood: She never advanced artistically beyond her first novel, and never had an adult relationship -- or at least a public one. She lived by her own code, refusing to join the social whirl of literary New York. For years she spoke of writing a second novel, and in the '70s, when it failed to materialize, her sister Alice claimed, straight-facedly, that a burglar had broken into her apartment and lifted the manuscript.

"Mockingbird: A Life of Harper Lee" is compelling for the reason "Capote" was: Both chronicle the creation of a great book, but Shields, a former high school teacher, pays closer attention to the writing than to the research process, tracing the nucleus of "To Kill a Mockingbird" as far back as Lee's college days. In this sense, "Mockingbird" is more a biography of a novel than an author, and Shields would have done better to skip the hermetic second half of Lee's life instead of forcing it into 13 grasping and uncertain pages at the end. Only Harper Lee can say why Harper Lee never wrote another novel -- or, for that matter, anything beyond a few hackneyed women's magazine articles in the '60s. Only Harper Lee can say whether Harper Lee was gay, or whether, as Capote suggested in a letter, she was "unhappily in love with a man impossible to marry" (possibly her married literary agent). Though Shields can't begin to answer the big questions about Lee's personal life, his analysis of her novel's inception and impact almost fills the gap, but even there, he's neglected an important aspect of her artistry: a discussion of Scout, Lee's 6-year-old narrator, as an icon of American girlhood.

For thousands of postwar American women, Scout is a touchstone of childhood authenticity. In some Mary Pipheresque prelapsarian state, we were all Scout once: unfiltered, free-ranging, with a physical confidence rooted in a prepubescent androgyny -- qualities inevitably poisoned by the idiotic affectations of adolescence. (When she senses the feminizing agenda her stuffy aunt has in store for her, Scout feels "the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in" on her.) Lee's magic (which some early critics perceived as a failure) was in ventriloquizing the experiences of a 6-year old in the voice of a grown woman, offering a bridge back to childhood. As a motherless child, Scout demonstrates how children treat life's curveballs as what happens, not what shouldn't happen, and adjust their expectations accordingly. She's unlike other girl characters, filmic or literary, of her age: Who even remembers the name of Mary Poppins' wide-eyed female charge or the girls in "The Railway Children"? Even the more heroic contemporary preteens who've followed, like Hermione of "Harry Potter," are not protagonists. What other girl character has Scout's open grace, her left hook, and the narrative to herself from beginning to end?

Shields does an excellent job of tracing the evolution of Lee's book and tracking its success; less so of parsing its cultural value. Still, "Mockingbird" lays a strong foundation for Lee scholarship, and turns up some marvelous ephemera. (Mary Badham, who played Scout in the movie, blew her lines repeatedly at the close of filming because she didn't want the experience to end.) Despite some overextended metaphors, the writing is taut, briskly paced and sometimes lovely: Shields describes A.C. Lee's arrival in Monroe County, Ala., where "sawmills were chewing into the piney woods, filling the air with their ear-splitting whine and the vinegary smell of fresh cut lumber." And he's highlighted a side of Lee that's subtly evident in her novel, though wholly absent from the film "Capote": her wry and sometimes cutting sense of humor (honed, apparently, when she was the editor of the humor magazine at the University of Alabama, where she studied law). When she was told her book had great appeal for children, for example, she deadpanned, "But I hate children. I can't stand them."

Lee was -- is -- a quiet nonconformist whose rejection of celebrity is almost unimaginable in today's media culture, especially for a bestselling author. Fame caught her by surprise; she hoped her book would meet a "quick and merciful death" and instead it achieved immortality. As a fellow Alabamian who knew her as a fledging writer in New York noted, "Here was this dumpy girl from Monroeville. We didn't think she was up to much. She said she was writing a book and that was that."

Margot Mifflin

Margot Mifflin is an assistant professor in the English Dept. at Lehman College/City University of New York. She is writing a biography of Olive Oatman called "The Blue Tattoo: The True Story of a Victorian 'Savage'."

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