The tomboy Scout and attorney/father Atticus are two of the most vivid characters in US literature.
Surprisingly, author Harper Lee never completed another novel, although she probably contributed at least half of the research and writing of Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood.
Two books by Charles J. Shields explore why Lee never produced another work of fiction, why she dressed and acted the way she did, how the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird lived up to her expectations, and how true to life her story was.
In Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields explored Nelle Harper Lee’s childhood and how it shaped her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. He also told of Nelle’s friendship with neighbor Truman Capote, her days at the University of Alabama, and her years as a struggling writer in New York City.
I Am Scout is Shields’ adaptation of Mockingbird for a younger audience, and like the former, pieces together hundreds of interviews with Lee’s neighbors, friends and schoolmates, along with archival information. The books succeed in capturing the mysterious Nelle Harper Lee, an unconventional child, student and woman with a very private life in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
The book opens in the middle of a brawl between a seven-year-old Nelle and the older boys bullying her next door neighbor, Truman Streckfus Persons, in the Monroe County Elementary School playground. As always, Nelle triumphed, and Truman, her scrawny friend, was spared from the consequences of his provoking behavior. Every bit as fearsome as her future character Scout, Nelle, whose name was Ellen spelled backward, was considered a bully and a know-it-all by her contemporaries.
Like the girl in the novel and the film, she wore boy’s overalls and pants, and loved to write. Her attorney father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was the inspiration for Atticus, and after having worked as a bookkeeper and financial manager, Lee “read for the law,” a sort of homeschooling monitored by attorneys, and passed the bar in 1915. Since Monroeville was the county seat, plenty of legal cases came his way, and he was able to provide an upper middle class home for his wife and children.
Nelle’s mother was not deceased, as was the case for Scout in the novel. Known to be a brilliant woman, Mrs. Lee was a gifted classical pianist and kept a clean, simple house. The Lees employed black housekeepers, sometimes two at a time, who cooked, cleaned and looked after the children. One, Hattie Clausell, lived with the Lees for many years, and may have been the person Harper Lee was recalling when creating Calpurnia. Her round the clock presence in TKAM was true-to life, Shields says.
Despite the ever-present help with household chores, Mrs. Lee was not a happy person, and her husband worried about her mental state. She suffered from depression and severe mood swings, and was unpredictable. She had no social or cultural life, and would play her piano for hours, and gradually became housebound, because she could not be trusted to go to town alone.
Truman idolized Mr. Lee, who presented him with a pocket dictionary he prized for years. However, he satirized Nelle’s mother in a story he wrote in sixth grade, “Mrs. Busybody.” Years later, on a popular radio program, Truman Capote told the audience that Mrs. Lee tried to drown Nelle in the bathtub twice when she was two years old, and she was rescued by her older sisters. This may be why Scout recalls that her mother died when she was two, “so I never felt her absence.”
Truman and Nelle were five years old when they began playing together. “Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head,” she wrote of him, when he became Dill, the boy next door in TKAM. He was dressed in fanciful clothing from expensive stores, in a school where children wore patched hand-me-downs. It was the 1930s, the Great Depression, after all. He had the misfortune of having the worst thing that could possibly happen to a child happen to him: his parents didn’t care about him, and they didn’t care if he knew.
His parents were beautiful people who loved the high life, and he was given to his maiden aunts and bachelor uncle, all middle-aged or elderly, to raise. The female Huckleberry Finn and the sissy were an odd couple, but the two friends were inseparable, and Nelle was Truman’s steadfast protector.
Ultimately the story of Lee’s childhood and relationship with Capote is a fascinating one. It is well worth the read for youths enraptured by her solitary opus, who want to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, the woman who ensured that generations of high school students will never forget that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.