Monday, May 07, 2007

BOOKS | Mockingbird

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
By Charles J. Shields
[Non Fiction; Biography; American Literature]

A classmate once told me, the problem with Harper Lee was that she only wrote one book.

One of the questions Charles J. Shields kept asking was why Nelle Harper Lee never wrote anything else. For Mockingbird, he interviewed hundreds of people who knew Nelle Harper Lee. It took Shields more than four years of research to write this book. It's quite a feat, although one does wish to find some input from the author herself on the questions asked.

Now into her eighties, Nelle Harper Lee is still alive, and as reclusive as ever. It's not like she has gone Boo Radley and hides in her house all day. She's still active in church, a constant presence in her community. She's just persistently avoided the press and other unnecessary invasive presence through the decades.

Her life is simple, not tabloid material. In a warped way, it is this very spirit of unavailability that creates its own mystique of the Reclusive Southern Author, Harper Lee. That is this mystique that made me pick up this biography, because of the curiosity.

There was a moment of self-reflective when I wondered if reading Mockingbird made me complicit to an act of voyeurism. If Harper Lee guards her privacy with such insistence, shouldn't we just leave her alone?

Shields's biography essentially put together a decent, down-to-earth character for whom fame was more of a curse than anything else. (In fact it was implied the relentless demands of literary fame might have damned Lee from ever publishing anything else. The expectation was just too great.) You feel a respect coming through Shields' portrait. Nelle Harper rarely did anything just to fit in. People often remark how she seems awkward, careless of her appearance, unworldly. Beneath this unassuming exterior is an independent streak that demands to be herself ― but Lee is no egomaniac. She pays attention to people, she listens and is able to draw people out. She is considerate, real, capable of a teasing wit, no pretense. It was this quality that made her indispensable during the research for In Cold Blood. Where the doors were shut to Capote, Nelle Harper Lee was able to talk to people and pave the way for the friend who would eventually snub her.

When Lee won the Pulitzer Prize, it stung Capote. Lee continued to be obliging and generous to her childhood friend, until Capote inflicted the ultimate backhand when he omitted Lee's very significant contribution to In Cold Blood. (Capote never made any attempts to clarify the rumours that he wrote To Kill A Mockingbird either.)

Between the two you see two different examples of how literary fame change people. As Truman Capote slowly destroyed himself, Lee retreated further into her childhood home.

Lee once gave a talk to a group of students on the craft of writing. I thought it reveals something of herself:

"It's absolutely essential that a writer know himself," Nelle began, "for until he knows his abilities and limitations, his talents and problems, he will be unable to produce anything of real value. Secondly, you must be able to look coldly at what you do. The writer must know for whom he writes, why he writes, and if his writing says what he means for it to say. Writing is, in a way, a contest of knowing, of seeing the drama, of getting there, and of achieving what you set out to do. The simplest way to reach this goal is to simply say what you mean as clearly and precisely as you know how."

In 2005 an anecdote floated around the internet about why she never wrote another book:

"I had every intention of writing many novels," she reportedly said, "but I never could have imagined the success To Kill a Mckingbird would enjoy. I became overwhelmed." Every waking hour seemed devoted to the promotion and publicity surrounding the book. Time passed and she retreated from the spotlight, she said. She claimed to be inherently shy and was never comfortable in the limelight. Fame had never meant anything to her, and she was not prepared for what To Kill a Mockingbird achieved. Before she knew it, nearly a decade had passed and she was nowhere near finishing a new book. Rather than allow herself to be eternally frustrated, she simply "forgave herself" and lifted the burden from her shoulders of living up to the book. And she refused to pressure herself into writing another novel unless the muse came to her naturally.

A little more than a year after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Nelle wrote to friends in Mobile, "People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world." From all indications, she seems to have done that.

Whether the internet rumour was true or not, this is a good way to end a biography on a well-loved author.

I told my classmate that day: Harper Lee wrote only one book, but it was an extraordinary book that did far more than most writers managed their entire lives.

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