Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Harper Lee Biographies and Memoirs

So I've begun reading The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee by Marja Mills (2014). This may seem a little like overkill, since it's my second biography of Harper Lee this month. A week or so ago I finished Charles Shields' The Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (2006). But my library had both, and I'm on something of a roll. Added to which, they seem to be the only major biographies of Lee that really seem to count.

Although actually, not to split hairs, The Mockingbird Next Door is classified as a memoir. It's an important distinction in this case, because in some ways it's as much about the unexpected friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters (Harper and Alice) as it is about Harper Lee. In fact, I honestly think it might have been better all the way around if Mills had shaped it into even more a memoir (I'm only about half-way through) sharing more of how this unexpected friendship shaped and changed her as a writer, a human being, a storyteller, a person struggling with illness. Even better, I find myself wishing she'd just decided to write a straightforward biography of Alice Lee, Harper's older sister, because it seemed like Alice was the one who really wanted to share stories with her. And her story -- as a woman lawyer in Alabama who practiced law until she was 100 -- is worth telling in its own right.

But Alice and Nelle (that is Nelle Harper....one thing both Shields' and Mills' books have done is to put me on a first name basis with Harper Lee, who is generally called either Nelle or Nelle Harper by friends and family) are really a pair, and it would be hard to tell one story without telling the other. Especially since so much of Nelle's life was spent with Alice, and Alice was so protective of her sister and her sister's legacy.

There was a lot of controversy surrounding Mills' book -- I'm starting to wonder if there is ever NOT controversy when it comes to anything written about or published by or about Lee -- because apparently Nelle Harper went on record to say she didn't authorize it or endorse it in any way. Alice then went on record to say she didn't think her sister was really responsible for saying that (they were both in late years by that point, and Nelle was in assisted living) but then Nelle apparently countered later to say that you couldn't credit Alice's assent because she was, after all, 100 when she gave it. All of which just feels wearying, and to be honest, a bit sad.

What comes through in the book itself is how much both of these elderly women seemed to enjoy Mills' presence and the chance to talk with her, and how they encouraged her to get things straight about their lives. They certainly encouraged her journalistic activity (she wrote newspaper articles about them long before  she came out with this book) so it seems strange that Nelle at least would feel so adamantly against the book. But Nelle Harper Lee is a complex woman, and she has certainly guarded her privacy fiercely for many years, so perhaps it isn't so strange.

What I mostly come away with is the sense that I wish someone could just tell the story of her life without needing to worry so much about what she's going to think or say about it.

Which is essentially what Shields did in 2006 with his biography. He didn't bother with authorization -- probably because he knew that "hell, no" would always be Lee's response to any such request. What he set out to do was to write the best, most respectful biography he could, given the limitations of not being able to speak to his living subject. He talked to many people who knew her at different periods of her life, and he did copious amounts of research. It's a respectful and very well-written book, one that feels very rich on Lee's life up through the mid 1960s when she stopped giving interviews, but is necessarily a bit thin after that.

In many ways, I think I will ultimately feel that I got to know Lee best through the biography, despite the fact that Mills spent fourteen months living next door to the Lees and actually spending time with them doing ordinary things (fishing, drinking coffee, watching football). Perhaps because there continues to be a sense in Mills' book that she's always hedging her words, always just a little uneasy about the fact that she's sharing in ways that Lee, with her deep sense of privacy and her rather volatile temperament, might not approve. You can't help but get the sense that, for all the times she enjoyed with the Lee sisters, she never got fully comfortable in Nelle's presence, waiting for the unexpected invitation she'd been issued to get to know her to be revoked.

Shields, by contrast, just confidently presents his story. He doesn't gloss over the mysteries surrounding Lee and her reclusivity after Mockingbird, and he asks the tantalizing question that everyone asks "why was there no second novel?" but he doesn't indulge in ungrounded speculation and he doesn't invest too much in one answer, preferring to let us see how Nelle Harper more or less seemed to drift into her later years without, perhaps, making a big decision regarding all that. Mills speaks to that too, but I'm just having a harder time sticking with her more tentative, less cohesive book.

One more note: if you're especially interested in Lee's longtime friendship and working partnership with Truman Capote on In Cold Blood, Shields' book is a goldmine. He provides such a long chapter on that partnership that he almost seemed to be gearing up for a whole book on the subject. Clearly at least one thing he wanted to do was to set the record straight regarding how much Lee contributed to that whole creative process, even though Capote never fully acknowledged her role.

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