Is there a more universally beloved American novel than To Kill a Mockingbird? Some class it as the definitive Great American Novel, embodying drama, strength, redemption, and the ultimate triumph of good and truth over ignorance and evil. It invites re-reading, and re-reading again. Many of us read it in high school and would derive a lot from revisiting it as adults.
And the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird--wasn't it just about flawless too? Gregory Peck was the perfect Atticus Finch: strong, principled, protective. The whole movie is a snapshot of small-town America. Our DVD version is always checked out, despite this movie's having been made in 1962.
But the author of To Kill a Mockingbird: what of her? Harper Lee has remained one of the great enigmas of American letters. Despite her promise of more books, To Kill a Mockingbird remains her only published novel. There's a new unauthorized biography of Harper Lee, Mockingbird, by Charles J. Shields, that might cast light on a few of the questions and mysteries that continue to swirl around Harper Lee.
Why are there writers who stop writing? Writers of remarkable ability who claim depletion of talent, or desertion by the muse, or even -- incredibly -- that they would just like to try something else? Their refusal or inability to follow up on their successes provokes forsaken readers into demanding explanations, the more fantastic the better. Failing for decades to publish a novel after Call It Sleep, Henry Roth came up with a variety of excuses, including sore elbow, anti-Semitism, and laziness. Nothing satisfied until he offered an explanation so hideous it had to be true: he was essentially an autobiographical writer, and, unable to write about the sexual abuse he had inflicted on his sister, he could not write at all. The professor in Paul Auster's novel The Book of Illusions is the author of a "meditation on silence," a book on Rimbaud, Dashiell Hammett, Laura Riding, and J.D. Salinger, "poets and novelists of uncommon brilliance who, for one reason or another, had stopped." Their silence is simultaneously maddening and appealing. Having created hits, they would not publish worse. To some of their readers, their silence only makes them more powerful, gods refusing to show their faces, too good for the world.
In their company must surely reside Harper Lee. That she wrote only one book, nearly universally beloved, is perhaps the best-known biographical fact about her; for some of her readers, it is the only fact. Charles J. Shields has now produced the first biography of the novelist, who, unsurprisingly, refused to approve of the project, or avail herself for any interviews, or sanction Shields to quote from her writing. Yet Shields is unstinting in his admiration for Lee -- the biography oozes love -- and his justification for writing an unauthorized life is persuasive: "I believe it is important to record Lee's story while there are still a few people alive who were part of it and can remember."