Nonfiction Monday:
The “Jane Austen of south Alabama”

h1 March 3rd, 2008 by jules

I used to read To Kill a Mockingbird annually. Though I gave up that habit, without meaning to, I was always impressed by the fact that I found something new to love about the novel each year I read it. And, of course, I’m not alone. Harper Lee is the favorite one-hit wonder of a lot of readers.

In 2006, Henry Holt released the first-ever biography of Lee — who is, arguably, contemporary literature’s most elusive author — entitled Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. An unauthorized biography, written by Charles Shields, it was met with mixed reviews. While School Library Journal wrote that “{s}tudents and curious fans alike will find material here to further their understanding of her work and life,” Publishers Weekly wrote, “{m}uch of this first full-length biography of Lee is filled with inconsequential anecdotes focusing on the people around her, while the subject remains stubbornly out of focus.” And in her 2006 Washington Post review, Meghan O’Rourke wrote:

Mockingbird is less a biography than, as its subtitle claims, “a portrait,” and like all portraits, it is highly subjective. More dogged than shrewd, it is hardly the definitive treatment Lee merits, nor is it a particularly perceptive argument about the place of To Kill a Mockingbird in American literature. (Shields has also written biographies for young adults.) However, it usefully and often entertainingly compiles and organizes information about Lee’s life and offers a plausible answer to the question that preoccupies so many readers: Why did Lee never write another book — and why did she retreat from the public? . . .

Even so, Mockingbird fails to offer as nuanced a portrait of Lee as one would hope for or to cast much literary insight on To Kill a Mockingbird. In the absence of reliable data from which to forge a coherent narrative, Shields follows his research down many a cul de sac and pads out trivial details . . . while giving short shrift to complicated questions: Is To Kill a Mockingbird a great novel or a sentimental, didactic one? Was Lee really a brilliant writer or an average one who, with great diligence and the support system of a talented editor and agent, was able to shape a highly autobiographical story that hit a cultural nerve in the years leading up to the civil rights movement?

This April, Henry Holt will release Shields’ new version of the biography, one adapted for younger readers, entitled I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee, and I just finished reading an uncorrected proof of this title. Not having read Shields’ Mockingbird biography, I can’t tell you how this adaptation compares to the original. But it does sound as if the two versions, not surprisingly, follow a similar format:

The first two chapters capture Harper Lee’s (born Nelle Harper Lee) childhood in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama, her spitfire, tomboy personality (“Bully was a word often used to describe Nelle”), and her friendship with Truman Capote, known by every other elementary kid at Monroe County Elementary as a “sissy, a crybaby, a mamma’s boy, and so on”; outlines the small town of Monroeville upon which the fictional Maycomb is based (including the mysterious Boulware house, in which it was believed that Alfred R. Boulware had his son “languishing inside, a prisoner in his own home . . . A well-hit ball from the schoolyard that landed in the Boulwares’ weeds might as well have rolled into a minefield. Everyone knew better than to retrieve it”); and paints a vivid portrait of her home life with her lawyer father, her siblings, and her mother, who did little actual mothering and evidently suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. Shields also points out the “circumstances” of Lee’s mother: “Life in a small town couldn’t offer much to a woman of her talents and interests . . . The image of Mrs. Lee, a ‘brilliant woman,’ killing time by playing the piano for hours or reading is a sad portrait of a creative person with no outlet.” Shields also goes out of his way to point out that Lee’s father — upon whom she based the character Atticus Finch, despite his neighbors describing him as “detached” — was a man concerned with issues of justice, yet for most of his life he supported school segregation (“{w}orth pointing out . . . is that A.C. Lee himself only gradually rose to the moral standards of Atticus during his life”).

Shields then takes us to Nelle’s schooling at Monroe County High School (“{g}enerally she continued to ignore conventions that applied to most girls”); Huntingdon College in 1944 (“{b}y midyear, the verdict was all but in: Nelle was different, and not in a fun or delightful way, but in a manner that ignored convention, which could be interpreted as a kind of insult to everything these young ladies stood for”); her transfer to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa to study law and her work at the Rammer Jammer, a quarterly publication staffed by satirists and humor writers; and her summer exchange program at Oxford University. After that experience, she only spent one more semester in law school before dropping out to move to New York and write.

If you’re a fan of Lee’s novel as well as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, for which Lee helped him research, the biography gets really interesting about mid-way, as Shields shows that Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, was pivotal in shaping To Kill a Mockingbird into the beloved piece of fiction it is today. And an entire chapter is devoted to Lee’s assistance in researching the Cutter family murders (including tightening-up Capote’s manuscript while she was said to be working on her second novel) for what would become In Cold Blood, something for which the emotionally-unstable Capote never thanked her (“in January 1966, she opened the first edition of In Cold Blood {and} was shocked. The book was dedicated, first, to Capote’s longtime lover, Jack Dunphy, and, second, to her. There was no hint of how much she had helped”). Shields certainly touches upon the persistent rumor that Capote, indeed, wrote To Kill a Mockingbird — but claims it’s unlikely (and there’s always this anyway). Instead, we’re given a portrait of someone who made it possible for Capote to get the research he needed for his book (Lee knowing how to warm up town folks in Holcomb, Kansas, where the Cutter murders took place), yet going largely unthanked for her efforts.

Shields, it goes without saying, highlights the dizzying, Pulitzer-Prize-winning time period in Lee’s life in which the novel took off, suggesting overall that the pressure of scoring with a second novel after the first one became such a huge success is one reason she never wrote another novel (“Nelle didn’t regard herself as an important person, and the attention being paid to her almost seemed to be happening to someone else”) — and even devotes an entire chapter to the making of the 1962 film adaptation with Gregory Peck. Fans of the movie will enjoy all the fun facts about the making of the film, including Gregory Peck’s initial, unconventional attempt to learn as much as he could about Lee’s father.

Shields closes with some conjecture as to why Lee shuns interviews and why she never wrote a second novel. All in all, this book is for fans of Lee’s novel, the movie adaptation, and even fans of Capote. Recommended for those teens keen on their literature and biographical criticism. As O’Rourke wrote about Shields’ Mockingbird at the close of her Washington Post review, “in the end, this is less a rigorous biography than a pleasant evocation of how one fiercely private woman was perceived by those around her. As such, it reminds us that a biography is, always, a fiction in its own right.”

Note: The quoted excerpt in this post’s title comes from Harper Lee herself (“all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama”), from a rare 1964 interview for Roy Newquist’s evening radio show, Counterpoint, on WQRX in New York.

* * *

RELEASE DATE: April 2004; Henry Holt.
NOTE: I read an uncorrected advance proof of this book; quoted excerpts are subject to change.

8 comments to “Nonfiction Monday:
The “Jane Austen of south Alabama””

  1. I loved Catherine Keener as Harper Lee in Capote, although, goodness knows, she and PSH were totally breaking my heart with their vulnerability and bad decisions and everything.

  2. I liked that movie, too, Adrienne. Catherine Keener always makes juicy, interesting role choices, don’t you think?

  3. […] 7. Abby the Librarian (Emi and the Rhino Scientist) 8. Sara Lewis Holmes (Walking on Alligators) 9. Seven Impossible things Before Breakfast (The Jane Austen of south Alabama) […]

  4. Yes, and it seemed particularly so since I saw Capote within weeks of seeing The 40 Year Old Virgin. Quite different, those roles.

  5. Catherine Keener was totally great in that movie, as usual. But I was most impressed with Clifton Collins, Jr. as Perry. I could not look away when he was onscreen.

    I’m eager to read this book, since info on Harper Lee is so hard to come by. Don’t you wish she’d write her own autobiography? Wouldn’t you like to know what she really, REALLY thought about Truman giving her the shaft over In Cold Blood?

  6. He was just a downright dirty ‘ol dawg about it is what he was. It doesn’t make me dislike his amazing writing (In Cold Blood gives me the shivers, and I love “Children On Their Birthdays” and might just have to re-read it, like, tonight), but still . . .

  7. I have this book (also and ARC) on my list of to-reads. I am looking forward to it!

  8. […] about the author herself (which is unusual for me as I never read biographies) after bumping into this mention of I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields, when I was searching for an image […]

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