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Book on Harper Lee finally answers puzzles about writer's life

February 12, 2007
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

I’ve been waiting for this book for a very long time and didn’t know it.

In the summer of 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee – one of the most influential pieces of American fiction ever -- was published. Almost 50 years after publication it still draws a million readers a year.

When a Ukrainian friend wanted an American book to read for her English class in Kiev, what did she ask for? The Pulitzer Prize-winning perennial best-seller “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Hundreds of successful writers from Gus Lee to David Guterson credit Lee’s work, the only book she ever wrote, with being their inspiration.

And is there anyone who has seen the award-winning movie and doesn’t think that Gregory Peck, in another life, was Atticus Finch? (Rock Hudson was seriously considered for the part.)

But the problem has always been that very little was known about the author, Harper Lee. Recent movies about Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood,” have stirred up interest in Lee, the diplomatic researcher who stayed in the background but helped in critical ways to open doors for the flamboyant Capote.

Then, finally, the book I’d been waiting for appeared last year. It is “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee” by Charles Shields, the first book ever written about the mysterious author.

(And let me urge you now to mark your day book if you want to meet Shields – he is coming to San Francisco on April 10, 2007. He will give a reading at Books Inc. in Opera Plaza at 601 Van Ness Ave.)

If you don’t quite remember the details, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the story of a young girl named Scout and her old brother, Jem, and their childhood in a small Alabama town in the 1930s. Their father, Atticus Finch, a lawyer, is appointed to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.

The title comes from something Atticus once told Scout – that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird because they don’t do anything but make music for people to enjoy.

This story about tolerance and family and small-town America sold more 30 million copies. But the author stopped giving interviews four years after her novel was published and has, apparently, written nothing since.

Charles Shields tried to find out why. He admits up front that the one person he never got to ask was Harper Lee herself. The woman – now in her 8Os – is not a recluse but is not a public figure either.

Here are some interesting facts Shields tells his readers about Nelle Lee aka Harper Lee.

First, yes, she and the late Truman Capote met each other when they were young and spent summers together in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the character of Dill Harris is based on Capote.

Her family is not descended from Robert E. Lee and she does not have a law degree, although she did study law for a time. Instead of becoming a lawyer like her father and older sister, she quit law school and moved to New York City to write a novel.

She still lives in her New York City apartment some months of the year and in Monroeville with her sister the rest of the time.

“Residents are accustomed to seeing the two ladies puttering around the First United Methodist Church where they have been members all their lives…but friends warn strangers not to bring up (the novel)…she has been known to leave the room if pestered,” writes Shields.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter. Why hasn’t Harper Lee written another novel?

Shields, who interviewed 600 people in researching the biography, suggests that the perfect mix of circumstance that led to her first novel never repeated themselves. When Lee wrote her book, she was living alone in New York on money given to her by friends specifically so she could write full-time. Her early manuscript landed in the hands of a patient and perceptive editor who worked with her for two years shaping the final product. She watched how her friend Capote reacted to fame and probably decided she didn’t want to follow his path.

Later, after experiencing such unexpected and phenomenal success, she might have felt unsure of herself. And as her supportive extended family fell away due to illness and death, she might have frankly decided not to bother. She had nowhere to go but down.

Yet I can't help hoping that there’s a cache of papers somewhere that represents stories, novels and essays that she’s written over the past many years. I would love to read them.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.

For More Information, Visit These Links:
David Gutterson and Harper Lee by Elisabeth Sherwin Wikipedia entry about "To Kill A Mockingbird"
Harper Lee at Wikipedia

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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