Read Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, from Childhood to Go Set a Watchman by Charles J. Shields Online


"A fine, well-rounded portrait of Harper Lee. Mockingbird is good reading."—Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)To Kill a Mockingbird—the twentieth century's most widely read American novel—has sold thirty million copies and still sells a million yearly. Yet despite her book's perennial popularity, its creator, Harper Lee, has become a somewhat mysterious figure. Now, after years of"A fine, well-rounded portrait of Harper Lee. Mockingbird is good reading."—Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)To Kill a Mockingbird—the twentieth century's most widely read American novel—has sold thirty million copies and still sells a million yearly. Yet despite her book's perennial popularity, its creator, Harper Lee, has become a somewhat mysterious figure. Now, after years of research, Charles J. Shields brings to life the warmhearted, high-spirited, and occasionally hardheaded woman who gave us two of American literature's most unforgettable characters—Atticus Finch and his daughter, Scout.At the center of Shields's evocative, lively book is the story of Lee's struggle to create her famous novel, but her colorful life contains many highlights—her girlhood as a tomboy in overalls in tiny Monroeville, Alabama; the murder trial that made her beloved father's reputation and inspired her great work; her journey to Kansas as Truman Capote's ally and research assistant to help report the story of In Cold Blood. Mockingbird—unique, highly entertaining, filled with humor and heart—is a wide-ranging, idiosyncratic portrait of a writer, her dream, and the place and people whom she made immortal....

Title : Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, from Childhood to Go Set a Watchman
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ISBN : 9780805083194
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 368 Pages
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Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, from Childhood to Go Set a Watchman Reviews

  • Louis
    2019-03-13 11:32

    This was probably hard to write as the author had to do so without the benefit of interviewing the subject. And without the cooperation from the subject, it seems that those closest to the subject honored the subjects wishes and did the same. So what he did was to contact anyone that he could think may have known the subject for the briefest amount of time for any anecdote. The result is probably best described by a quote from an initial edit of To Kill a Mockingbird by the publishers, Lippincott: " it was 'more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.'"The book reads like he took a stack of notecards from interviews and letters from anyone who would deign to respond, and strung them together. It is full of anecdotes, that in a normal life, would probably mean nothing to anyone. All the while he is trying to tie every small aspect of Lee's life to 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'In Cold Blood'A result is unsatisfying. You get a picture of Lee, but it looks like a picture put together by a committee of people who were strangers to her, almost a character description than a description of a person. For the person who wants to know 'To Kill a Mockingbird' deeper, read it again, and maybe join a book discussion. This does not help.

  • Mauoijenn ~ *Mouthy Jenn* ~
    2019-02-16 13:44

    I got to page 35 and I could not take it any more. The writing was poor and I would rather Ms. Lee be surrounded in mystery for me. No need to spoil anything.

  • Jeanette
    2019-02-26 14:44

    When To Kill a Mockingbird was first released, all "Nelle" Harper Lee hoped for was "a merciful death at the hands of reviewers." Humble expectations for a book that won the Pulitzer and is still the most popular novel of the 20th century. It must have been quite a challenge to write a biography of someone who refuses to be interviewed and has shared almost nothing private about herself over the years. Shields did well with this book, considering the limited information. He did a great deal of research and filled in the holes with details about the people who surrounded Nelle. I really admire Nelle for always just being who she wanted to be, regardless of social pressure. She smoked a pipe in college! Not the done thing for well-bred Southern young ladies in the 1940s! What a character.The most interesting parts of the book are further in, where it tells about her assisting Truman Capote with In Cold Blood and the period of time where she wrote/published/filmed To Kill a Mockingbird. She was far too loyal to Capote. In Cold Blood absolutely could not have been written without her assistance, and yet he refused to give her proper credit. What a Jerkin McGherkin!!I read large print edition, so don't freak out at the number of pages.

  • Kressel Housman
    2019-02-26 12:31

    It's official. I am a Nelle Harper Lee fangirl. I want to find her apartment in New York and hang out with her, talking books and writing. But since she wouldn't appreciate yet another stalker, I'll try my luck with the pre-approved method: I'll write a letter addressed to her in Monroeville and hope for an answer. If you loved To Kill a Mockingbird, chances are, this biography of its author will cause you to react the very same way. The book makes Nelle feel like a beloved friend, which is quite amazing, considering that the author of the bio didn't even get to interview her personally. Instead, he gathered information from people who knew her at the various stages of her life, from college classmates to Monroeville townsfolk to fans who've actually managed to make contact with her. Between that, research into the notebooks kept by Nelle and Truman Capote when they worked on In Cold Blood, and previously published work on both writers, this bio is a respectable work of scholarship that's also entertaining. My favorite chapters were on the making of the movie and Nelle today, but the overall effect of the book was to make me appreciate one writer's process, particularly the difficulties. The question of why she never published again is analyzed at length. The book also makes it clear why both Nelle and Truman Capote were among the greatest writers of the 20th century. To borrow a concept from Malcolm Gladwell, they put in their 10,000 hours as kids, collaborating on original stories on a used typewriter given to them by A.C. Lee, the real Atticus. The portrayal of him is interesting, too.I recommend this book to anyone who loved To Kill a Mockingbird, but you also need to have read In Cold Blood to appreciate it. Nelle and Truman had a rocky relationship, but I'm convinced that neither would have achieved such greatness if they hadn't been a team: Truman for his drive and ambition, Nelle for her stabilizing influence, and both of them for being intelligent oddballs in a tiny Southern town, left to their own devices to entertain themselves.

  • Marissa Mullins
    2019-02-22 16:45

    Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee Author: Charles J. Shields ©2006Publisher: Henry Holt and CompanyISBN-13:978-0-7394-7846-2 324 PagesFifty-one years after the publication of her Pulitzer Prizewinning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, author Harper Lee is again claiming the headlines. CBS News and the Sun-Sentinel both ran stories this month about President Obama honoring Harper Lee with the National Medal of Arts. Ms. Lee, aged 84, perhaps one of America’s greatest living authors, did not attend the ceremony. Her lack of attendance is no surprise to those of us who have read Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields. Mr. Shields writes, in the introduction to Mockingbird, that his book “aims to capture a life but is not a conventional biography, because – despite her novels huge impact – Lee’s writing life has been brief, and her personal life has been intensely private.” Mr. Shields goes on to explain his decision to write the book and the reasoning and research used to compose it. A beautiful and detailed introduction to the book sets the reader up to expect a hazy, distorted picture of Ms. Lee. However, the book is anything but that: clear and concise – weaving together research, commentary, and a warm narrative – the book transports the reader into a journey through life with Harper Lee. The authors desire to “capture a life” is eloquently and meticulously met in the pages that follow. This 324 page book provides a multi-layered picture of the woman that is Nelle Harper Lee: modern-day recluse, prior college drop-out, Pulitzer Prizewinning author, lonely airline ticket girl in New York, close childhood friend and research assistant to Truman Capote, tomboyish girl from the South, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, fervent church attendee, and winner of The National Medal of Arts. Lee, the enigmatic author of To Kill A Mockingbird, is simultaneously defined by these designations while remaining an individual that will not be subjugated to any one title that describes her. Mr. Shields, in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, brings the feisty, Southern writer to life for his readers. She is a woman we can admire and understand. She is an uncommon author uninterested in wealth or movie-star status. She is simply Nelle, an author seeking to explore her talent and write something meaningful about the world and time in which she came of age. To Kill A Mockingbird is no longer just a Southern novel, but is transformed into an inevitable work of art by this writer. Her love of place, family, and the strong desire for empathetic justice fills the book as it fills her life. The clarity of Lee’s character shines in Shields book as he delves into the psychology of the time in which Ms. Lee wrote and the emotional connection she felt to time and place as displayed in her writing. Lee’s one and only book, To Kill A Mockingbird, is a book of substantial importance in American literature. It delves into the psyche and behavior in the American South during the period of racial unrest and blatant discrimination that characterized the decades of the 1950′s and ‘60′s. The book was a sensational hit during it’s time as summarized by July 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was published and picked up by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild. A condensed version of the story appeared in Reader’s Digest magazine. The work’s central character, a young girl nicknamed Scout, was not unlike Lee in her youth…. part of the novel reflected racial prejudices in the South…. attorney,…Atticus Finch tries to help a black man who has been charged with raping a white woman to get a fair trial and to prevent him from being lynched by angry whites in a small town.The following year, To Kill a Mockingbird won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and several other literary awards. Horton Foote wrote a screenplay based on the book and used the same title for the 1962 film adaptation. Lee visited the set during filming and did a lot of interviews to support the film. Earning eight Academy Award nominations, the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird won four awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch. The character of Atticus is said to have been based on Lee’s father. The popularity of Lee’s book in the 1960′s demonstrates a somewhat perfect timing in publishing history. To Kill A Mockingbird captured a moment of Southern and national history that would soon change, but her application of the broad themes of good and bad, fair and unfair, to the story created a timeless, universal novel. As an important piece of American literature, To Kill A Mockingbird demonstrates the fight for good over evil in the world, and advances the premise that one person can make a difference if he will only step forward and act on his deepest convictions. It is this literary-cultural duality that makes Lee’s work eternal. And, Shields adeptly captures this aspect of Lee, her life and work, in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. It is an intimately beautiful portrait where Shields artistically draws Lee as a presence larger than the time and culture she wrote about. In the end, his portrait succeeds as he introduces the reader to a Harper Lee that is as boundless and enduring as her novel. Sources: 1. Madison, Lucy. “Obama honors Meryl Streep, Harper Lee, Philip Roth, Quincy Jones and others with National Medals of Arts and Humanities.” CBS News Story online. March 2011. Http:// (March 7, 2011) 2. Kellogg, Carolyn. “Harper Lee to receive National Medal of Arts.” Los Angeles Times. March 2011.,0,5076637.story. (March 8, 2011) 3. Harper Lee Biography. “Harper Lee Biography.” March 2011.Http:// (March 9, 2011) 4. The Associated Press. “Harper Lee Writes Rare Item for O Magazine.” Washington Post. June2006.Http:// (March 8, 2011) 5. Charles J. Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.(New York: Henry Holt and Co., LLC, 2006).Reprinted from Whippoorwill: an online literary journal, Spring 2011 issue. Original source at

  • Terry
    2019-02-20 17:24

    I thought this was TERRIBLE. Shields has written many juvenile non-fiction books and it SHOWS, and not in a good way. I absolutely despise when biographers try to write scenes from someone's life like fiction, or a television "re-enactment". Just terrible. In addition, there are too many "guesses" about someone was thinking or feeling or even doing--far too many "maybe he thought", "perhaps she meant to say", "could have been", "may have been" etc. etc. etc. If you don't have the information from a reliable source, just don't speculate, please. Finally, the structure of the book is also just...terrible. Shields paints Lee's youth and early adolescence with a very broad and sometimes slapsticky paintbrush, renders her first visit to Kansas with Capote in almost minute-by-minutes detail, describes the early years of her fame in detail, then skims over the next forty years of her life in a handful of pages. This is all probably a result of the fact that there just isn't enough information to build a complete biography, which clearly is the was Lee wanted it (the majority of the information seems to come from Capote's letters, which aren't the most objective or reliable source, either).

  • Peggy
    2019-03-12 14:33

    I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird before I read Charles J. Shields biography of Harper Lee, Mockingbird. The parallels between her life and her classic novel were numerous. I enjoyed reading how the real small southern town and its characters morphed into the familiar ones from To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee values her privacy and is an enigmatic person, so Shields really had to dig to do his research. Even then, certain (private) aspects of her life remain elusive, as she wished. Her lifelong relationship with Truman Capote is an interesting and evolving part of the story. Rumors that Capote actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird are put to rest. Instead, Lee’s role in researching, editing and possibly writing some of In Cold Blood without much acknowledgement from Capote is probably the reason that their friendship cooled over the years. I’m left feeling that she put everything she had into her first book and was never able to write another that met her standards. How could you top To Kill a Mockingbird ?

  • Diane Yannick
    2019-03-10 09:36

    OK, Charles Shields, you have created a fine portrait of Harper Lee but don't get too cocky and believe that you have written the authoritative portrait of Miss Lee. Me thinks that she has chosen to keep integral pieces of her enigmatic being private from all, except maybe her sister Alice. Her reclusive non-chatty personality can be interpreted, but not with any assurance that you've reached into her soul. BUT, I liked your portrait even if I question your confidence. Interestingly, Shields was an English teacher who taught his students To Kill a Mockingbird before he started his research for this book. Harper Lee was frosty, saucy, shy, rude, generous and "a deflater of phoniness". Man, did she hate phoniness! She tried to follow in her family footsteps and be a lawyer but her desire to write was too strong. Her success with Mockingbird surprised and pleased her yet she soon shunned her notoriety.She was not overly impressed with herself and got sick of being asked when her next book would be published. Although she tried to write another novel and a book about a crime she researched, she was unable to complete them to her satisfaction. This biography was written in 2007 before the ghastly publishing fiasco of Go Set a Watchman. What a greedy crime to betray Harper Lee at age 89 when she can no longer clearly state her wishes. She accepted that she was a one-novel-author and chose not to publish anything that was not up to her standards. Yet, as soon as Alice, her "protector, advisor and gatekeeper" died, the vultures showed up at Harper's nursing home where she sits In a wheelchair almost totally deaf and blind, and hand her a pen. Shame on all involved in this travesty!For me, the whole rumor that Truman Capote helped write To Kill a Mockingbird should be put permanently to rest. Rather, it appears to me that Truman Capote could not have written In Cold Blood without Harper Lee. She was the one who did much of the research and smoothed the way with the townspeople for the flamboyant, arrogant Capote. Gregory Peck's much sought after friendship with Harper gave unexpected insight into his personality.NYT describes Harper Lee as a "a woman who knew when to get off the train". I'm glad that she took us on the ride and left us with a precious heirloom. I wish that some of our current day writers would realize that those novels they're cranking out every few months are destined for the recycling bin not our hearts.""To be a serious writer requires discipline that is iron fisted. It's sitting down and doing it whether you think you have it in you or not. Everyday. Alone. Without interruption. Contrary to what most people think, there is no glamour in writing. In fact, it's heartbreak most of the time." ----Harper Lee

  • Rachel
    2019-02-22 10:18

    Although Shields has done an admirable job of pulling together facts about Harper Lee's life from various previously published books and articles, as well as conversations with those who knew her personally, ultimately this is an unsatisfying biography. As private a person as Lee has been in past interviews, the desire of those closest to her to protect her, and her unwillingness to cooperate with Shields has resulted in a mostly factual, yet superficial account. Where Shields attempts to mine new material, the results come across as unsubstantiated and unflattering. There are numerous allusions to Lee's being an alcoholic, yet the only concrete example he provides as evidence is that she once "insisted" on making mixed drinks for her guests at 10:00 in the morning. He also ascribes to her rather childish lies about why a second, completed novel wouldn't be published, and the status of a third non-fiction book, yet it seems Shields learned of the alleged excuses from second-hand sources, rather than from those who spoke to Lee directly.A minor, yet no less irritating problem is a certain sloppiness with regard to the timeline. Although Lee moved to New York in the late 1950s, Shields, at one point, claims she arrived in 1947. In another anecdote, he describes dealings that a bookseller had with her beginning in 2000 and ending three years later ... in 1999.The chapters involving her early life are interesting in that they recount the real-life events and people that inspired To Kill a Mockingbird, as is the chapter on the time she spent in Kansas doing research for her friend Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, though the account of her relationship with Capote feels incomplete. Although they may have had a falling out over his refusal to give her more credit for In Cold Blood, it's never clear what happened. Shields claims their friendship was damaged by the slight, yet we later see Lee appearing with and being protective of Capote in interviews.Mockingbird is a decent enough read, and it fills in a lot of blanks about Harper Lee that I was curious about, but overall there was a feeling that some of Shield's claims had to be taken with a big grain of salt -- not really a good quality in a biography.

  • Eileen
    2019-02-19 09:35

    In the introduction to his unauthorized biography of Nelle Harper Lee, MOCKINGBIRD, Charles J. Shields says he has “tried to balance (Lee’s) desire for privacy with the desire of her millions of readers who have long hoped for a respectful, informative view of this rarely seen writer.” In my opinion, Shields has succeeded in rendering a considerate and enlightening portrait of Lee, though she may have preferred that the book not be written at all.Published in 2006, this is the first biography of Harper Lee ever written. I do not know if Lee ever commented on it. Shields tries to “set the record straight” regarding many inconsistencies written about Lee over the years although he admits that she never replied to his requests for “fact checking.” He defends her when it comes to those who would claim that Truman Capote wrote TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and gives her credit for doing invaluable research and groundwork on Capote’s book, IN COLD BLOOD, which Capote never formally acknowledged. As a writer, I found the story of the creation of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD the most fascinating and rewarding part of the book. Shields describes how the original manuscript GO SET A WATCHMAN became ATTICUS and then finally her masterpiece. The writing process is revealed in all its hard work and frustration. Shields also describes how Lee drew on her childhood and home town for inspiration in creating her novel. Shields addresses the question everyone asks, “Why didn’t Lee ever write another book?” He must base the answer to this question and indeed all the other questions on his impressive research as he was never able to interview Lee himself. The book reads like a novel in some places as Shields incorporates his imagination into the telling of a life. I enjoyed this style of writing, though it might not be for everyone.Though I reread with pleasure TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD several years ago with my Book Group, this biography has given me a desire to read it yet again. I think I will wait and read GO SET A WATCHMAN first, however.I highly recommend this biography to all fans of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

  • Chelsey
    2019-03-10 11:37

    Called “A portrait of Harper Lee” by the author, I would call this: “A portrait of Harper Lee, but not the details people really care about”, but that’s me. Honestly, it seems to be a little bit more about Truman Capote than his friend Nelle Harper Lee. Personally, I would have liked to spend a little less time in the novel talking about her time helping Capote with “In Cold Blood” I also thought that there was too much talk about the people that surrounded Lee.I was interested in the little details about the similarities between Lee’s childhood and the world of Maycomb she portrays in the novel; and the looks into the reasons that she did not write a second novel, but I also somewhat disapprove of the fact that the book was written directly against Harper Lee’s wishes.

  • Maggie
    2019-03-18 10:24

    This book goes beyond typical reference book. This is one readers interested in Harper Lee will want to read from cover to cover. Shields did a remarkable job of making research accessible.

  • Elizabeth K.
    2019-02-27 16:25

    This is a biography of Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird, and the author himself starts off by explaining that it isn't very long because there isn't a whole lot of information out there. The bulk of the information is from her research trip with Truman Capote while he was working on In Cold Blood, which makes sense because Capote cultivated any and all interest in his work and his person, and from the rush of publicity for the To Kill A Mockingbird movie, which also makes sense because it was someone's job to be pushing the publicity. Other than that, things are very sparse, and the author resorts to filling in meandering details about the locations and time periods that intersect with Ms. Lee's life. If, like me, you are a person who enjoys getting lots of information about a typical dormitory at a typical Southern women's college was like, then this is fine, although during these parts you could easily forget you are reading a biography of Harper Lee. This book does provide a bit of detail about the true life events that inspired episodes in To Kill A Mockingbird, and basic information about Ms. Lee's writing process. It was very odd to me to realize that I had never given much thought to these things before -- other than knowing trivia such as that Truman Capote became Dill, I hadn't focused on questions like too much, and I am the kind of person who usually likes to pursue all sorts of issues like this with books I hold dear -- which editor's hands were on it, who among the author's friends were asked to provide comments, which places and characters can be found back in the real world and how similar are they ... But I hadn't previously given any of these things more than a passing thought with To Kill A Mockingbird, it seems so perfect that surely it must have materialized fully formed, or at the very least, someone moving pen on paper while pleasantly reciting the story word for word in a strong Southern accent, "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow ..." and continuing on without interruption until the end. Unfortunately, this is not a view that is terribly respectful of the author, as we learn that she took great deliberations to slowly and methodically and skillfully outline and write and rewrite and edit, but I hope it is reflective of the very great awe in which I hold the finished product.Grade: A-Recommended: To fans of To Kill A Mockingbird, provided they do not mind learning more mundane things about the circumstances by which it came about. Harper Lee does not do interviews or releases, so this is unauthorized. For the most part, I found it fairly respectful.

  • Amy
    2019-03-06 15:24

    I think this is a solid biographical account of Harper Lee. I don't know that I really knew much about her beyond her having written an amazing novel and then stepping out of sight. I vaguely knew of her relationship with Truman Capote and their work together on In Cold Blood but I didn't have any context or details on it. This portrait of Harper Lee was enlightening in that respect but it still didn't go very deep into her life. Although I suspect that the lack of depth is due to the extreme privacy that Harper Lee lives her life in. Although the author was able to interview a lot of people about her, I'm not sure that he had the insider view that would have been necessary to make this book anything more than a satisfactory biography. It's solid. It's good. It's interesting. But, it didn't go as far as I suspect most of us would have liked. The most compelling things for me after reading this book -1. How much of her own life she used when writing To Kill A Mockingbird. I had no idea. I knew she grew up in a similar place but I had no idea how much she really leveraged!2. Her relationship with Truman Capote. Wow. He was something else! The story of their friendship and its projectory over their lives was fascinating.3. I found that I liked what I learned of Harper Lee much more than I'd expected - she appears (based on the account of her in this book) to be a feisty, intelligent, complex and kind woman. The kind of women that I like. A woman that I'd like to know. 4. I better understand WHY she may not have written another novel. Although that isn't solved per se, it is better understood after acknowledging her experiences with Mockingbird (the book and movie) and In Cold Blood. I can certainly understand her desire for privacy and her decision to remove herself from public life (for the most part). In the end, I wanted to go sit and have a cup of coffee with Harper Lee. She seems like a person that I would enjoy knowing. I have an even greater respect for her and the novel that she wrote. Her novel is an American classic for a reason. The writing of Charles J. Shields is clunky and ultimately made the reading experience drag on a bit. It took almost 10 days for me to get through it which is a very long time for me. Particularly since it isn't a long book. It just felt very dense and clunky to me. I enjoyed it, in the end, but getting there was sometimes a chore.If you love her novel and want to know more about her, her life, and perhaps get a glimpse into what she's chosen to do, this is definitely something you may enjoy. You have to push through the writing at times which isn't something that I would recommend to someone who isn't a fan of her novel or interested in her life.

  • Tony
    2019-03-15 14:28

    MOCKINGBIRD: A Portrait of Harper Lee. (2006). Charles J. Shields. ****.So…what do you do when the star of your intended biography won’t talk with you, and will not allow you access to any of her papers or correspondence? What Mr. Shields had to do was to interview over six-hundred people who knew Ms. Lee and to seek out copies of everything written by and about her that had ever appeared in print. It was a job well done. His ‘Portrait’ covers her childhood, her time at University where she never completed her law degree, her stint with Truman Capote (a next-door neighbor in Monroeville, Alabama, when they were children) in learning the story which ultimately became “In Cold Blood,” and the ultimate publication of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Then, we have to hear the story of the movie. Ms. Lee had little or nothing to do with the screenplay, but she was ultimately pleased with the selection of Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus. A constant theme that is discussed in this portrait is the ‘second book.’ We now know that the second book has recently issued, but it is firmly stated in this book by Shields that a book by the same name as the new one was a precursor, written prior to ‘Mockingbird.’ There is a lot of controversy about this ‘new’ book. You can read up on it on the internet if you are interested. I would certainly recommend Shields’ book as an excellent way to learn more about Ms. Lee. He managed to bring her to life using only circumstantial evidence. He also managed to bring out the personality of Capote and the relationship between the two writers, especially in regards to the research done for “In Cold Blood.” Recommended.

  • Mikey B.
    2019-02-23 16:30

    This is a straight-forward account of the life of Harper Lee - author of the famous novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”. The book starts off when both Harper Lee and Truman Capote investigate the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas. We can feel the way they both fed off of each other and that in many ways they were both outcasts – certainly not fitting comfortably into the strictures of Southern society.We also sense the single-mindedness of Harper Lee to pursue her career as an author. It took a great deal of strength to leave her family roots in Alabama and take up life in New York City. But she was still firmly planted in the South and would return frequently.The author speculates as to why she only wrote one book – but leaves it up to the reader to decide why there were no further novels. I also sense that Harper Lee enjoyed her speaking tours (and the adulation) after publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird”.Was her only book so intensely personal and autobiographical that she did not have anything left for creative writing? By contrast Somerset Maugham wrote “Of Human Bondage” which was also personal, but he wrote several credible stories after. At this stage, Harper Lee is over eighty years old and we will perhaps never know why there was no follow-up to her famous novel.

  • J. Bryce
    2019-03-11 12:33

    Really well done and documented biography of the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. This well captures Nelle Harper Lee's life as reflected by former classmates, friends and contacts in the publishing and movie worlds of the 1950s and '60s and beyond. Everything is documented and the book is rift with interest for those of us interested in the lives of others -- especially those who have tired of publicity and have retracted their personal contacts to a bare minimum.Nelle Lee is still alive and splits her time between homes in Monroeville, Alabama, and New York City. Her first novel, Go Set a Watchman, was recently rediscovered and will be published this summer, hence the resurgence of info on Ms Lee. This book was published in 2006 -- long before this first novel was rediscovered -- and bears no hints about the book, but reading this may allay readers' fears that this new book is being published for mercenary reasons alone. Nelle Lee is a fascinating character and the new book will add more depth to our appreciation of her as a person and a writer, even if it doesn't rival To Kill a Mockingbird as a work of literature and mainstay of high school reading lists. I hope to be pleasantly surprised by Go Set a Watchman, but don't hold high expectations.

  • Nancy
    2019-03-15 17:36

    Our Book Club read this in tandem with Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." Worst (unauthorized) biography I've ever read, although it was interesting to learn of Nelle (Harper) Lee's lifelong friendship with Truman Capote, who wrote "In Cold Blood."

  • Nd
    2019-03-17 11:21

    I'm thinking 4.5 rather than 4 stars, but that's not an option. This biography was great summer-time-in-the-south fun reading and beautifully done, but at the same time it's a slow read. Mr. Shields has done incredibly thorough, encompassing research on Nelle Harper Lee's life and presented her as a believable and familiar intellectual Southern woman. From childhood, Nelle wanted to be a writer, and poured time (years) and painstaking effort into making her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, as close to perfect as she could get it. She put in rigorous, long-term effort researching the Clutter murders in Kansas with her childhood friend, Truman Capote. From their fieldwork and analysis, he eventually created his novel In Cold Blood, though the paranoid and probably a bit jealous Capote barely acknowledged her fact-finding as well as editing when it finally was published. The fame and acclaim of To Kill a Mockingbird were both welcome and difficult to the reserved Lee, and the demands and lack of privacy eventually became a burden as she tried to live her life between small-town Alabama and New York. Charles Shields' biography lays out fact after fact after fact, first introducing Nelle's ancestors, her parents, then the townspeople of Monroeville, painting a vivid picture as she became our beloved Harper Lee while trying to remain her own Nelle Lee throughout her lifetime.

  • Emma
    2019-02-23 13:32

    Thoroughly researched, sometimes overly so. Even still, he couldn’t resist falling into the stereotypical journalists’ speculation about Harper Lee. Some parts about Truman Capote were too long - I didn’t buy a Capote biography!That being said, a picture of Harper Lee emerges, and I wish I could have known her in real life. She was feisty and stubborn and compassionate and private... all things I admire.

  • Linda
    2019-02-23 15:18

    A very insightful and well-researched book that gives a wonderful portrait of the writer and answers many questions, including, "Why did she never write another?"

  • Laurel-Rain
    2019-03-08 17:44

    A mysterious and elusive woman, Harper Lee, the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)," is the subject of this portrait by Charles J. Shields.A former English teacher, Shields set for himself the task of writing "Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee," this compelling biography based on hundreds of interviews, piecing together a picture of this Southern woman who began life in Monroeville, Alabama, the child of an attorney, whose mother suffered from a condition most likened to a bipolar disorder. Growing up, she was known to family and friends as "Nelle." Lee enjoyed a tomboyish existence in the neighborhood, where she first met and became friends with Truman Capote. Their relationship lasted many years, although in later years, a strain hovered over this friendship—perhaps due to her success and his envy.In her early years in NY, while she attempted to write her book and live the writer's life, she became a part of a small community of like-minded friends that included her agent, Maurice Crain, and others of similar interests. Throughout her life, they would be her support system and conduit to the literary world.At about the time her book was completed and just before its publication, Lee accompanied Truman Capote to Kansas as his assistant, to gather information on the killings of the Clutter family in Holcomb. Some say that her contribution to the eventual book, "In Cold Blood," was huge (yet unacknowledged).After the several years it took to complete "To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)," when it finally came out, Lee allegedly remarked that she hoped that some people would like it. She was definitely unprepared for its huge success, which included bestseller status almost immediately; a Pulitzer Prize; and, of course, the movie.Throughout this compelling portrayal of a fascinating writer, I could not help but long for something more about her life. More rich details of how she lives day-to-day. From all accounts, however, she blends almost seamlessly into the life of her small community. Occasional trips to NY became less frequent. For a woman who attained a great degree of fame and wealth, she certainly reportedly lives like an ordinary person—maybe less so, since she apparently strove diligently to maintain privacy and anonymity.And yet, in this biographical sketch, there were occasional accounts of interactions with people that might suggest a more sociable side lying just below the surface.For the most part, however, she seems to stay connected primarily with her family, her church friends, and others in the community. I liked reading descriptions of how she would be seen sitting alone at a table in a local restaurant, eating dinner, and enjoying her own company—or how her modest home is filled with books in every room. These tidbits reveal a contented person, despite what one might conclude. I especially enjoyed reading a comment she made to someone who asked her why she didn't write another book: "I had every intention of writing many novels," she reportedly said, "but I could never have imagined the success "To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)" would enjoy. I became overwhelmed." And in another instance, she was reported to have said something like...when you've reached the top, there's only one way to go.How intimidating this degree of success must have been for a woman with no pretensions, who had hoped to achieve her dream of writing a book (or several), and then, in one fell swoop, achieves the totally unexpected feat of becoming the creator of the most widely read American novel ever. To reach this level of success and then to live with it afterwards had to be the greatest accomplishment of all. In another quote from Lee that occurred a little more than a year after her book was published, she said: "People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world."She seems to belong in that company of admirable people.Five stars.

  • Graceann
    2019-03-10 16:18

    Charles Shields starts this book by telling us that the dearth of material he'd found on Nelle Harper Lee, author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, was such that he only had enough for a large pamphlet. We can't say that he didn't try; the interviews and bibliographic information used as research is evidence of a truly intensive effort. Unfortunately, however, he wasn't completely successful in the result. Because there is so little to tell about Nelle's childhood (it was a typical Depression-era childhood; not horribly happy or sad), Shields falls back on telling us a very great deal about the early years of Nelle's childhood friend, Truman Capote. There's so much about him that I began to get annoyed - if I'd wanted to read a biography of him, I would have bought one. The first 100 pages are very rough going indeed if the reason you got the book was to read about Harper Lee. When Nelle moves to New York and Mockingbird takes shape, that's when the book really starts to take off. The sequences with regard to her work on Capote's In Cold Blood (which was significant - she spent months smoothing feathers he'd ruffled in order to get interviews, and charming law officials so that access to the files, and the murderers, could be gained) are also very interesting. The lack of credit Nelle receives for her hard work on In Cold Blood is infuriating, though unsurprising given what we now know of Truman Capote's general nature. He was a sad, deluded man who was so full of bitterness and bile that not even the one person who stood by him, from his earliest years through his greatest literary triumph, was spared his cruelty. The chapters devoted to Nelle's attempts to write a second book and her quiet life in Monroeville and New York are the most interesting of all. She clearly tried very hard to give us a follow-up to Mockingbird, but it is my personal feeling that the phenomenon of its success overwhelmed her. That is certainly understandable. The demands on her time in the years following its publication would have required ten Harper Lees. Her life up to now is quiet by her own design and that's understandable, too. She apparently sometimes gets testy when she's approached regarding the book. It's got to be pretty tiresome to be seen only as the conduit through which Mockingbird passed. She is NOT a recluse; recluses do not travel freely around their hometowns, having Sunday breakfast and playing golf. She's just quiet in her movements and well-protected by her fellow Monroevillians. Nobody's going to point her out to you, and she could be any of the senior citizens enjoying the early bird special. It occurs to me that if I were blessed enough to be in her presence, I would ask her about anything other than Mockingbird. Just getting to talk to her at all would be a gift. Someone who received a letter from her said "I keep it framed and on the wall; I have a windowless office and I need the light." I loved that sentence and the story preceding it regarding this person's interaction with Harper Lee, most of anything that I read in the book. Though I respect the effort that Charles Shields made to help us know Miss Lee a little better, I find it more than a little ironic that my very favorite bit of the book was shown to us by him, but written by someone else.

  • Feisty Harriet
    2019-02-25 14:24

    2.5 stars. I really wanted to love this, I did. And Shields does a pretty good job of talking to everyone he possibly can about Nell Harper Lee....but after reading "The Mockingbird Next Door" a few weeks ago, this book--without any input or even response from Harper Lee--just rings kind of hollow? I mean, it's a thorough and comprehensive biography, but the soul of this book just isn't there for me.Read This Instead:

  • Charlotte
    2019-02-21 17:44

    I was encouraged to read this book by a friend when I mentioned I had just read To Kill A Mockingbird. The author decided a book should be written about Nelle Harper Lee, but she became a very private person in later years and refused all requests for interviews or to share materials with the author and never gave her approval to his project. He thoroughly researched everything written by her or about her, and interviewed many people who knew her and were willing to share memories, letters, etc. It took me awhile to get into the book. The first two chapters felt disjointed to me. He did not follow a sequential path, and digressed to quote different sources, to bring up genealogies or quote descriptions of her, or her family and of her friends, including Truman Capote, who was a childhood neighbor and classmate as well as a lifelong friend. My feeling was that he wanted to first establish that his information was thoroughly researched, by quoting as many sources as he could connect to the storyline. However, late in the third chapter, midst telling of her education, he began to really tell her life story, and I enjoyed the rest of the book a lot. It was interesting to see the parallels of her own life with the book. Atticus Finch is patterned after her father (her mother's maiden name was actually Finch) and her personality is much like Scout. Truman Capote is much like Dill and her own brother like Jem. An interesting substory was her work with Truman Capote to research the murders of the Clutter Family in Holcomb, Kansas about the same time To Kill a Mockingbird was going to press. It was Nelle's personality that helped the local people, and the legal authorities to open up and share information, and her copious notes that Truman Capote used to write his book, In Cold Blood. She did a final read of his manuscript with many edit suggestions before it was sent to the publisher. When the book came out, she was shocked to discover that he only made a general mention of her in his book dedication, along with another of his friends saying he appreciated their support, when she could have legitimately been considered as a co-author. The book shares much about both Nelle Harper Lee's personality and celebrated personalities and humble ordinary people that were a part of her life, and how the fame and money generated from this book took more of a toll on her creative abilities and life, than they did to empower her to do the writing she had dreamed of doing.

  • Jennifer
    2019-03-18 12:44

    oh, man. i wanted to love this books so much more than i did. i am pretty disappointed. it was okay. fine-ish, even. but it wasn't very good. the second half of the book, post-in cold blood time, was better going for me and seemed less inclined towards something i have recently discovered i really don't like in biographies: reliance upon supposition and inference in times or situations where such information couldn't possibly be's clear shields is a huge fan of miss lee and that the book was undertaken with good intentions. i guess i am just a bit confused over what that intention really was though? at moments, it all felt a bit...dirty. quotes were used from correspondence obtained between shields and people who had been in miss lee's life, even if just marginally. i never felt confident that these people really knew miss lee or were adding value to her story.i realize truman capote was a large presence in miss lee's life. i knew that prior to reading this biography. but it seemed to me an awful lot of page space was given over to the funny little man. i am also aware that miss lee has not given interviews or answered requests for appearances for many years. she's not reclusive - in her hometown she is familiar and social. i was aware of this. but her friends and neighbours are protective. (which is so awesome!) so i suppose i am left feeling that there is only so much information here to build a story upon and that the capote stuff is some sort of padding to give heft to the biography. i don't know?i loved learning that miss lee was a bit of an eccentric on her university campus - preferring to dress in men's striped pyjama bottoms and shocking other student by smoking a pipe! (HA!!)the one bit of information i did learn that surprised me was that miss lee "wanted to be the jane austen of alabama." thanks to a wonderful high school english teacher, miss lee fell in love with the novels of jane austen. once 'to kill a mockingbird' brought so much financial success to miss lee, she thanked her teacher (who had also helped proofread TKaM) by taking her on a trip to england, to have an austen experience together. awww!!!

  • Emily
    2019-03-01 17:24

    How many times have I wondered "What in the world ever happened to Harper Lee? Where did she go? Did she vanish off the face of the earth enigmatically without the news hitting the rest of us, or is she still out there, alive somewhere?"This book explores all the answers, the most fascinating being that Nelle Harper Lee still putters around her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (a.k.a "Maycomb"), the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird, at the age of 72. She's single, living with her law-practicing elder sister Alice who is in her 90s. Does Harper Lee still write? It doesn't much look like it (at least she hasn't published a second novel) but she reads. And reads. And reads.Finishing this gem made the first four or five hours of labor last week a lot more bearable. I've been savoring doses of this book each night before bed for the last two months and it's been like eating a little dessert at the end of each day. Delectable! Here's a juicy tidbit from the book:"...too often we end up establishing difference instead of love. We like to have all our comforts and familiars about us, and tend to push away that which is different, and worrisome. That is what happened to Boo Radley, and to Tom Robinson. They were not set apart by evil men, or evil women, or evil thoughts. They were set apart by an evil past, which good people in the present were ill equipped to change. The irony is, if we divide ourselves for our own comfort, no one will have any comfort. It means we must bury our pasts by seeing them, and destroy our differences through learning another way."So fascinating. Especially as the real Atticus, Harper's father A.C. Lee, was much like the character in the book and movie. Before the filming of TKaM, Gregory Peck went out to visit the aging A.C. in his own living room, and gleaned many of A.C.'s idiosyncracies for the film: like the nonchalant tossing of a Swiss army knife, and the unconscious twirling of a pocket watch. Of course, the real A.C. didn't look exactly like Gregory Peck, but maybe that makes him seem all the more believable.A definite page-turner.

  • Jessa
    2019-02-25 09:26

    I really, really wanted to like this book. Lee is such an interesting character, and I would love to learn more about her. Unfortunately, this book really isn't about her, since three-hundred something pages didn't happen to her. Instead, it is a random collection of facts with some semblance of a connection to Lee that the author deemed interesting enough to add to this messy jumble. So, yes, it contains information, but that information is badly organized and often irrelevant. The writing is atrocious. As I said in one of my status updates, I wanted to attack it with a red pen just for the satisfaction of knowing that someone had edited the book properly, if not the author or publisher. Seriously, a biography is not the place to display your "creative" writing skills. Rules like "don't end sentences with a preposition" and "don't begin sentences with a contraction" went here to die painfully. I'm sorry if that sounds mean, but I really, really want my books to have correct grammar, and this one didn't. I also found the author's personal anecdotes in the Introduction to be very annoying. Again, a biography is not the place. I think it's mostly a way to fill space; as I said before, Lee, though she is interesting, didn't do three hundred pages' worth of stuff in her life. I also felt that Shields lacked the necessary respect for Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird. At times, he discussed Lee like she was a small child, and at others, as if she was a subject to be studied at the whims of others. He established within the first paragraph that she did not want to be written about and studied, then basically said, "But I'm doing this anyway because I don't care." His five-paragraph summary of To Kill a Mockingbird left much to be desired. In short, I'm giving up on this book after thirty pages - something that is practically unprecedented for me - because it is disorganized, confusing, and slightly dull.

  • Mary Moore
    2019-03-11 13:33

    If I were rating this book only on being informative, I would give it five stars, because I learned a lot about Nelle Harper Lee -- or at least as much as one can learn from an unauthorized biographer who is trying to understand a writer who shuns any requests for interviews. Growing up, Lee was perhaps even spunkier than her beloved character Scout (in To Kill a Mockingbird, for any readers from another planet). She was a tough tomboy during the days when she played with Truman Capote. And, later, when her father wanted to go to law school, she only gave it a brief try before dropping out to move to New York to try her hand at writing -- a very bold move for a young Southern lady of that time.In New York, Lee was lucky to encounter a literary agent, Maurice Crain, who recognized her potential. With his help and the help of a good editor, she revised Mockingbird at least three times. And she was stunned by its success. One of the most interesting parts of the book describes Lee's work with Capote as he researched the story that would become his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. For years, rumors floated around that Capote actually wrote parts of Mockingbird--not true. In fact, without being too heavy-handed, this book makes it clear that Lee didn't get the credit she deserved for helping with In Cold Blood. Charles Shields is not a great writer, but his research seems solid and his presentation is fair and respectful. I give him credit for not jumping to conclusions that he can't prove. He does drop a tantalizing hint that Lee might have had an affair with her agent, and it's clear that their relationship went beyond the usual bounds of agent and writer. * it must be one of the greatest literary wonders of the world that Capote and Leee happened to be from the same town of 7,000 people.

  • Maia B.
    2019-03-12 10:30

    Oh so boring. Harper Lee wrote a brilliant book and she was clearly a brilliant person but her life is not all that interesting. Charles Shields hops around from topic to topic, he's not that great a writer, and he doesn't do a very good job presenting a dull life in an interesting way.I mean, I love To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee is clearly one of the most brilliant people currently on the planet, but you know what? Her life was really dull. And I wish I'd just read her Wikipedia article instead of forcing my way through this uninteresting, poorly written, not especially enlightening book. All through the first hundred pages I thought, "What an interesting child; I bet her life will be fascinating," and then what do you know? Nelle publishes her book and vanishes. The rest of the book is about the movie.I don't mind reading about the movie - that was actually interesting - but I wanted to know what Charles Shields thinks about why she didn't write anymore. Basically, he passes it by.It took me nearly 3 months to read this book. I couldn't face picking up such a boring tome. Why not just read To Kill a Mockingbird again if you want more of Harper Lee? It's a million times better than this dull, not very notable book, and it will never get old - unlike this one did, after the very first chapter.