Saying it all: Harper Lee’s story in print and on stage

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Charles Shields is currently revising his biography of Harper Lee. The stage production of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird opens at Live Arts on Friday. Photo: Ryan Jones Charles Shields is currently revising his biography of Harper Lee. The stage production of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird opens at Live Arts on Friday. Photo: Ryan Jones

On February 19, Nelle Harper Lee, author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, died in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, at the age of 89. The evening before, I’d finished reading Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by local author and biographer Charles Shields. Shields took on the daunting task of researching and writing a book about the elusive author known for declining interviews back when there were no book-length biographies about her. Shields never had the opportunity to meet Lee. He repeatedly solicited her help in writing the biography but she declined to be interviewed and did not respond to his attempts to check facts by mail. He writes in the introduction, “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.”

When I interviewed Shields in early February in advance of the Live Arts production of To Kill a Mockingbird (opening March 11), he was in the process of revising a new edition of the biography to be titled Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee from Scout to Go Set a Watchman, scheduled for publication in July. In it, he says, he will detail how the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman became the book To Kill a Mockingbird, how they differ, and why Go Set a Watchman is upsetting to people.

Lee’s first novel, published in 1960, was not expected to sell more than 2,000 copies, but her story of racial justice told from the perspective of a young girl, Scout Finch, sold 2.5 million copies in its first year and won the Pulitzer Prize. Shields’ biography is full of revealing details: The desk Lee wrote on in her New York City apartment was a repurposed door; she once threw the entire draft of To Kill a Mockingbird out the window into the snow; and she was able to write it because of a generous Christmas gift from friends, giving her enough money to live on for a year. Lee reacted to this gift in a letter: “…I have a horrible feeling that this will be the making of me.” And how right she turned out to be.

Shields chronicles her life from her origins in Monroeville, as “a female Huck Finn” whose “vocabulary was prodigious, her skepticism a constant bother to teachers,” to the publication of the novel, the success of the film adaptation and her gradual withdrawal from the media spotlight, even as the staged version of her novel became an annual tradition in her hometown.

It took playwright Christopher Sergel 20 years, beginning in 1970, to complete the script to his satisfaction, even though the play had been in high demand from American schools as early as 1965.

Shields describes Lee’s singularity and eccentricity as she puffed away on a pipe in her college dormitory, strode across campus in her brown leather bombardier’s jacket,  “a figure that blurred gender distinctions,” and wore her threadbare jeans to house parties in New York where she stood out as self-effacing and droll. As to why Lee never published anything other than To Kill a Mockingbird and, eventually, Go Set a Watchman, Shields points to a response Lee once gave: “I said what I had to say.”

In Go Set a Watchman, the character of “Atticus Finch is not the same person as he is in To Kill a Mockingbird,” Shields says. But, he continues, the Atticus in Go Set a Watchman is “typical of white male Southerners in the 1950s who were educated, civic boosters.” Atticus, the white lawyer and father of Scout defending a black man accused of raping a white woman, was inspired by Lee’s own father, A.C. (Amasa Coleman) Lee.

Before Lee died, I asked Shields, “What would you ask Harper Lee if you could?” But he is most intrigued by the story within the story, the ideological shift in the real man who inspired the character of Atticus. He said he would have liked to ask A.C. Lee how he progressed from someone who believed segregation was biblical to someone who became interested in fair representation for blacks.

After Lee’s death, Shields wrote in an e-mail, “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 on the cusp of the civil rights movement, and redirected Americans’ gaze, after the excitement of the 1950s, back to the enduring problems of racism and injustice in the United States. Then, 55 years later, Go Set a Watchman appeared during the summer that a white supremacist murdered black Americans at prayer, and the Confederate flag came down all over the nation at last. Clearly, Miss Lee has been trying to tell us something and we haven’t listened.”