BOOKS: Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition

April 26, 2016


Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition

When Charles J. Shields’s biography of Harper Lee came out in 2006, it was hailed as the definitive study of the famously private author and her singular 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Like so many journalists before him, Mr. Shields (above) was rebuffed when he asked to interview Ms. Lee and her closest relatives. He found surprisingly little correspondence from her in library collections. So to reconstruct her life, he interviewed 80 people, including friends, former classmates and neighbors, and parsed her novel for autobiographical clues. The resulting biography was about as intimate a book as a scholar could write about an author who kept the world at a distance.

But a lot changed over the next decade. After Mr. Shields’s biography was published, Ms. Lee filed lawsuits against her former literary agent and the museum in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. In 2011, Ms. Lee issued a statement through her lawyer denying that she had authorized another book about her, “The Mockingbird Next Door,” by the journalist Marja Mills. Mr. Shields decided he needed to update his biography.

He was already at work on the new edition in 2015, when Ms. Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins, announced that she would release a second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which she wrote in the mid 1950s. The novel, which portrayed Atticus Finch, the hero of “Mockingbird,” as a racist, shocked readers and scholars.

The new edition of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” out Tuesday, paints a more nuanced and in some ways perplexing portrait of Ms. Lee, who died in February at age 89, leaving many questions unanswered. Below are edited excerpts from a recent phone interview with Mr. Shields.

Q. In the decade since the book was first published, Harper Lee’s career and legacy has changed dramatically. How does your understanding of her now differ from how you saw her when you published the biography?

A. Somehow, she managed to pack a lot into the past 10 years. When I first published the biography, I saw Harper Lee as the sole author of the book, as if it had sprung fully formed for her forehead. After “Go Set a Watchman” came out, that became a touchstone against which to evaluate “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Without the benefit of having another book in hand, I took “To Kill a Mockingbird” at face value. Now I see it in a different light. I see the influence of her editor, Tay Hohoff, much more now. “Go Set a Watchman” is highly autobiographical. I think she exposes more of herself than she really wants to.

When I started looking at the amount of litigation in her life since 2006, it was depressing and very revealing. That was of a piece with the entire third act of Harper Lee’s life, which was endless “he said, she said” and unresolved disputes.

Q. Reviews of “Watchman” were mixed, but even people who found it to be vastly inferior to “Mockingbird” agree that it sheds new light on her creative process and her thoughts on the Civil Rights movement and Southern politics. Where do you come down on the Watchman debate? Should it have been published in her lifetime?

It’s an important cultural document. But I would never hold it up to a class and say, “You must read this, it’s a classic.” If anything, it’s a good book about what not to do. There’s too much exposition and not enough dramatization.

Q. Harper Lee apparently was not a fan of your book about her and told friends not to read it. Did you ever learn what she objected to?

A. The objections were kept very general. I heard she and her sister Alice were not happy with the biography. I heard from a friend of hers that they did not like the portrayal of their mother. They were very sensitive about that. Mrs. Lee was a manic-depressive. I tried to be as discreet as I could, but since it plays into “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I had to answer the question. Where’s the mother in “To Kill a Mockingbird”? She’s in her room, not speaking to anyone, or leaving the house without permission. Harper Lee identified more with her father than her mother.

Q. You discovered a newspaper article that she wrote, without a byline, about the Kansas murders that she helped Truman Capote research. How did you come across it, and what does it suggest about her role in shaping Capote’s “In Cold Blood”?

I went back to look at newspapers in Garden City, Kan., and I stumbled across a little mention in a column that said, our visitor Harper Lee will be writing about what’s been happening on the case for the F.B.I. magazine The Grapevine. Then I contacted The Grapevine. They said, Yeah, there’s been a reference to that over the years but we can’t find anything. I told them to look in the spring of 1960. There indeed was an article than only Harper Lee could have written because it was so full of info that would later appear in “In Cold Blood.” I speculate that there was no byline because she really didn’t want to tread on Truman Capote’s story. It’s a long flattering article about the great work chief investigator Alvin Dewey is doing on the case and how Truman is going to get to the bottom of it. It was an unselfish act from a friend.

She wrote letters to her agent about having a huge crush on the investigator.She uses the phrase “drop-dead handsome.”

Q. Since her death and even in the months leading up to it, there have been batches of her private letters that have come up for sale at auctions. Do you worry that important documents that offer clues about her life and work might be slipping away into private collections, rather than collected at a library where scholars can study them?

A. I would like to see her estate make a genuine effort to round-up some of these letters and put them together in an authoritative text. It adds to the narrative of the life, but if these continue to come out in dribs and drabs, postcards from the Gulf Coast and Christmas cards, as a researcher who prides himself on being very organized, I dislike the sense of things unraveling. I would like to see them collected in a big fat book of letters.

Q. She stopped giving formal interviews for the most part in the 1960s. What questions would you have most liked to ask her, if you could?

A. I would have liked to have asked her whether her father did indeed change his views on segregation at the end of his life because the gentleman was only alive for a short time after “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out. I’d like to know if it was the book and daughter that changed his mind, or did he see the direction things were going?

I would like to know the answer to whether she was every deeply in love with someone. She’s obviously a woman of deep compassion. She’s a keen observer of human drama; that empathy is at the core of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I would like to know if she had the blessing of ever being in love with someone. Freud said the two components of a contented life are love and work. We know a lot about the work side of Harper Lee and not so much about the love side of Harper Lee.



3 thoughts on “BOOKS: Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition

  1. Conrad,

    Over to you, my friend.

    I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird ages ago and saw the movie starring Gregory Peck. I borrowed the book from USIS Library in Penang. Lacking knowledge about the American South, I could not at that time understand what it was like to be an American Negro in the segregation era.

    When I lived in the US (1968-1970) as a student in Washington DC , I was confronted with the issue, thanks to the efforts of Martin Luther King, Robert Francis Kennedy, James Baldwin and the African-American struggle for justice, Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture (June 29, 1941 – November 15, 1998) and the Black Panther Movement, and Alabama’s racist Governor, George Wallace.I admired the Civil Rights Movement and Howard Zinn, the celebrated author of A People’s History of the United States and his colleagues.It was a learning experience which made me anti all forms of discrimination. –Din Merican

  2. Mr. Merican,

    Hopefully this is not too critical – I do adore Harper Lee – but I think there is much truth – there’s that word again- in what Toni Morrison said about the novel being a “white saviour” narrative.

    When I read her novel it was not about empathizing with black folk but rather an affirmation of values that I believed worthy of emulation. The fact that those values came from a position of privilege kind of went without comment for a while.

    It was only after reading “black narratives” and I use the term loosely because Walter Mosley – black and Jewish – often talks about the scarcity of “black male heroes” as literary archetypes , did I , understand that these narratives were far more complex than what came from “white” perspectives.

    I’m not arguing that white folks shouldn’t write about black folks or history but I am saying well [ok paraphrasing] Morrison, that these types of narratives were written for a white target audience.

    There’s nothing wrong with that but compared to Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, I think the novel fall shorts of the greatness its proponents thrust upon it as a seminal piece of work relating to race in America.

    Just my hopefully informed opinion, Mr. Merican.


    Harper Lee was writing at a time when it was still taboo to deal with Negro issues. The novel was in the same tradition as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin published in 1852. I have not read Toni Morrison since I no longer read novels. James Baldwin was my cup of tea then. So I must be missing something since I am reading non-fiction.

    As you know, the Negro is no longer used. In stead, African-American is adopted since it is more polite and acceptable today. I have very good African-American friends who are competitive and can hold their own against the white compatriots, but they are still being stereo-typed. I believe they deserve better treatment and recognition for their contributions to America in all fields of human endeavour.–Din Merican

  3. I read “to kill a mockingbird ” long ago and used it teach many times. I think it is a great book that gives us a realistic picture of a small Alabama town. I think ” go set a watchman” also gives a realistic picture of a small Alabama town and there are lessons to be learned from both books. Harper Lee told both stories very well.

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