SHELF LIFE- Mockingbird: Evasive subject eludes portrait

The usual scribe for this space, Thomas Yeatts, has gone on a brief summer sabbatical. In his place, a Boston-based critic steps in to examine the brand new biography of Harper Lee by Barboursville resident Charles J. Shields –editor.
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
By Charles J. Shields
Henry Holt, 326 pages, $25
Harper Lee is making a comeback.
No, the elusive author has not released the long-awaited follow-up to her auspicious 1960 debut, To Kill a Mockingbird. But Nelle Harper Lee (her full name)–- or at least her character–- has reluctantly returned to the limelight.
Last years biopic Capote starred Catherine Keener in an Oscar-nominated performance as Lee, the childhood friend and collaborator of Truman Capote (real-life model for the novels Dill, buddy of Scout and Jem). Infamous, a new movie due this autumn, similarly looks at the literary friendship (this time– yikes!– Sandra Bullock plays Lee).
Harper Lee is on the cultural radar again. Not that her novel ever went out of style. Touching a nerve with a nation torn between nostalgia for small-town Southern life and a willingness to face up to its racial divide, the novel sold some 30 million copies to become required reading for nearly every high schooler in America. It also garnered Lee, then a 34-year-old first-time novelist, a Pulitzer. She was poised for a long and illustrious career.
Alas, aside from a few magazine articles, she never published again, and after 1965, she refused all interview requests. Despite reporters and fans periodic attempts to crack the Mockingbird code, Lee, now 80, still fiercely guards her privacy. The full arc of her enigmatic life has largely remained unknown.
Now comes Charles J. Shields, whose Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee is the first attempt to track the scattered crumbs. A print and radio journalist with experience penning young adult biographies of Roald Dahl, George Lucas, and Saddam Hussein, Shields certainly had his work cut out for him. Faced with producing a definitive biography of the reclusive Lee, let alone painting a 287-page portrait (plus 25 pages of notes and sources), any author would be stymied. As Lee herself once wrote, Im afraid a biographical sketch of me will be sketchy indeed.
Part of the problem is access to Lees inner circle. She refused to cooperate with Shields, and her two living sisters wouldnt talk, either. Other family members, associates, and her original editors and agents are all dead. (Not that they would have necessarily participated; Lee coached her close friends to remain mum about her life.) In lieu of compelling first-hand evidence, Shields largely resorts to interviews with casual friends and college classmates, and transcripts of press conferences and university speaking engagements. Its all he has, but after some pages, the gambit begins to wear thin.
Not that Shields hasnt done his homework. With a journalists healthy appetite for research, hes unearthed practically every article and archive mentioning Harper Lee. Shields susses out which characters from To Kill a Mockingbird correspond to Lees Monroeville, Alabama, childhood. To put the novels events in context, hes included useful civil rights history. His portrayal of Lees brusque personality and socially eccentric ways as a University of Alabama student and humorist helps explain her unorthodox individuality later in life.
Unfortunately, Shields also packs his account with myriad– and at times arbitrary– background detail that pads rather than expands the story. The opening chapter on Lees 1949 arrival in New York City inexplicably gives us statistics on polio cases, snow plows, and taxi cabs. Do we need to know how a manual typewriter functions, that Nelles high school English teacher was also a quilter and a gardener," or that her sister Alice took her bar exam with three 4fs–- men who had failed the physical for active duty in the armed forces?
The odd, early-years precision shows an obliviousness to where, and how, detail is best employed. Its you-are-there trick–- On this snowy day, though, Nelle was not preoccupied with losses"–- also sets up expectations for a narrative style abandoned after the fourth chapter, jarring disharmoniously with Lees vague, post-1970 decades.
Which raises the other problem. Aside from an initial and meteoric rise, the rest of Lees career is largely taken up with shuttling back and forth between her Alabama hometown and her New York writers bohemia. Anecdotes about Gregory Peck and the 1962 film adaptation are amusing, but theres just not that much to tell. With less bookishness and more on-the-ground reporting (i.e. knocking on doors), a more skilled raconteur could have made the pursuit to fill the gaps in Lees past an element of the story, yet Shields offers no such approach.
The meatiest passages assimilate biography with reasonable speculation–- for example, Shields conclusion that Nelle was not an adult long enough to have resolved the biggest emotional mystery of her upbringing, which was why her mother practically ignored her.
Mockingbird also takes a stab at unraveling Lees mercurial relationship with Capote, strained when he refused to credit her indispensable contributions to In Cold Blood. The account of their multi-week research trip to Garden City, Kansas, regains some of the biographys lost narrative momentum. Shields ultimately comes down hard on Capote, who is described as using Lee and completely self-centered and willing to exploit any of his friends in his own self-aggrandizing quest for fame and fortune.
But such insights are few and far between. Shields antiquated diction–- rough-and-tumble hearty," kick over her traces," old scold"–- are off-putting. The tacked-on ending hastily proposing a gay and lesbian spin on the characters of Scout and Dill is an ill-advised way to leave the reader.
Regardless of its huge interest to Harper Lee fans, Mockingbird safely exists at the level of chronology and events. Shields hasnt shaped the material. Given the scant paper trail, perhaps this outcome was inevitable. Meanwhile, Lee seems to have had the last laugh. This January, she finally granted an interview. Too bad for Shields, he wasnt the reporter.
This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Charles J. Shields