Monday, June 05, 2006

The Jane Austen of south Alabama

Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird is such a popular favorite that every six months or so some related event summons it forth in pop culture news. Last year it was Harper Lee's supporting role in the Truman Capote/In Cold Blood story which hit the big screen as Capote.

Now it's the release of Mockingbird, the new biography of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields.

Can this life really sustain a book-length biography?

The Independent's reviewer equivocates:
Harper Lee was at the height of her fame as the bestselling author of To Kill A Mockingbird when, in the early 1960s, a librarian at her old university, an all-girls establishment in Alabama called Huntingdon College, puzzled over why he could find almost no information about her. So he wrote and asked if she wouldn't mind providing some biographical details so she could be appropriately honoured by her alma mater.

Lee's response was oddly revealing. It was quizzical, light-hearted, self-deprecating--and almost completely unhelpful. "I'm afraid a biographical sketch of me will be sketchy indeed," she wrote. "With the exception of M'bird, nothing of any particular interest to anyone has happened to me in my 34 years."
The sum of our knowledge of Lee is pushed only so much further--barely one-sixth of the book covers the years after 1962 and the release of the Oscar-winning movie of Mockingbird, starring Gregory Peck. But we do get a sense of an unusual, complex woman who never sought fame and quickly decided she did not like it, a woman who relied on a few very close relationships to help her achieve her ambitions and struggled when those relationships faltered.
Harper Lee's last major interview was given to Roy Newquist in March 1964, for his book Counterpoint. Its last line: "All I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama." Click here to read the interview.

Click here to read the New Yorker 's review of Shields' Mockingbird.

Serious Mockingbird enthusiasts and architectural history buffs should track down the Summer 2003 issue of Alabama Heritage (the contents, sadly, not available online) which includes a fascinating article, "The 'Mockingbird' Courthouse," by Delos Hughes.

--Marshal Zeringue