In the Washington Post, Meghan O’Rourke reviews one of the more talked about literary biographies in recent memory, Mockingbird by Charles Shields. In fact, I’m surprised that it took so long for the first serious biography of Harper Lee to emerge, since she is a figure that has long inspired curiosity among readers. One of the big questions the biography tries to answer is why she has never written another novel. The Post characterizes Shields’ conclusion thusly:
Shields makes a convincing case that Lee, a standoffish, stubborn woman invested in precision, became too “overwhelmed” by the success of her first novel to finish any of her subsequent efforts… For Lee, he observes, writing was always about capturing the everyday nuances of Southern small-town life she knew so well — and, in her own way, loved; when she became famous, her relationship to that world was permanently altered.
That certainly rings true to me.
The biography has also prompted critics to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird, as Thomas Mallon did in the New Yorker back in May. He took the opportunity to present a somewhat contrarian view of Mockingbird, essentially calling the widely read novel over-rated.
In the New York Times Garrison Keillor used his review to celebrate Lee and to pardon her sin of not giving us more books to read.
Ahead of her is a deluge of success, a potful of money and some sort of vindication in the eyes of Monroeville. Truman will disintegrate and die at 59 and she will persist. The lady looks around at a room full of books, closes the door, and drives off with her sister to an early supper at Dave’s Catfish Cabin, a plate of fish and hush puppies and a glass of tea. Everybody at Dave’s knows who she is and nobody asks her made-up questions about writing or fame or how she explains the long run her novel has enjoyed. She is apparently in good humor and enjoying her food and not planning to go on Oprah or Charlie Rose. And so there, dear reader, you will just have to leave her.
Though she has been labelled a one-hit wonder, Shields’ biography, and the discussion it has prompted, prove that she has inspired much more fascination than that label would imply.