Mockingbird A Portrait of Harper Lee

Charles J. Shields

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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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 the book's perennial popularity, its creator, Harper Lee has become a somewhat mysterious figure. Now, after years of research, Charles J. Shields has brought 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—and who contributed to the success of her lifelong friend Truman Capote's masterpiece, In Cold Blood.

At the center of Shields's lively book is the story of Lee's struggle to create her famous novel. But her life contains many other highlights as well: 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 Capote's ally and research assistant to help report the story of the Clutter murders; the surrogate family she found in New York City.

Drawing on six hundred interviews and much new information, Mockingbird is the first book ever written about Harper Lee, and is an evocative portrait of a writer, her dream, and the place and people whom she made immortal.


Praise for Mockingbird

"This biography will not disappoint those who loved the novel and feisty, independent, fiercely loyal Scout, in whom Harper Lee put so much of herself."—Garrison Keillor, The New York Times Book Review
"Mr. Shields constructs a worthwhile portrait of [Harper Lee]."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"The biography's strengths are all the ways it brings together pieces of Lee's life to form the portrait of its subtitle. Particularly compelling is its treatment of periods in the writer's life after her childhood in Monroeville . . . [It] provides a valuable historical context for events, including Lee's choice of a 'crime that shocked the readers of The Monroe Journal when she was a child' as inspiration for Tom Robinson's rape trial in the novel . . . There are many details to be savored in the accounts of Lee's arrival in New York in 1949, at 23 . . . Shields' account of the filming of To Kill A Mockingbird is a highlight too . . . [The book] conveys a fuller sense of Lee's life and times worth having. As a bonus, it will almost certainly make [you] want to reread To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood."—Lynna Williams, Chicago Tribune
"Admirers of [Harper Lee] and her masterwork can . . . be grateful to biographer Charles J. Shields for shedding some much-needed light on Miss Lee's family, friends, background and literary accomplishment . . . Mr. Shields has produced a work that all future biographers of Harper Lee will need to consult for its many commendable aspects."—James E. Person, Jr., The Washington Times
"What can be known [about Lee] has been collated and analyzed in Mockingbird, a new biography by Charles Shields that seeks to explain more of Lee's life as a writer and as a person of her times . . . Shields' painstaking research does a great job in bringing out the complexity of Lee's character.”—Betsy Aoki, The Seattle Times
"Shields answers most of my questions, tells me what I wanted to know, fills in blanks I did not even know were there . . . Shields' exhaustive research has enabled him to tell us [Lee's] story much as a historian might tell of the life of a great figure recently passed away . . . Shields reveals in a well-paced, cleanly written narrative that brings the reader as close to the subject as the reader needs to be . . . This is a book for anyone who loves To Kill a Mockingbird. Teachers who teach it . . . will find a treasure trove of information to pass onto their students. Writers who admire it will identify with the trials and tribulations of turning blank paper into something someone someday might read. And everyone else, regular readers who discovered something in her book that touched them personally, will find something in the life of Harper Lee that explains why this story moves them so."—Harvey H. Jackson, Anniston Star (Alabama)
"Researched and written with such painstaking care and dedication, is . . . a readable and useful companion to Lee's one great novel."—Wade Hall, The Courier-Journal
"[This book is] an impressively unauthorized biography of the famously reclusive author."—B.K., New York Magazine
"[Shields] answers several questions that have swirled around Lee and Capote, and he introduces fresh information that puts a new spin on both authors . . . [He] does an excellent job of tracing the evolution of Lee's book and tracking its success."—Margot Mifflin, Salon
"If you treasure Scout, one of literature's more endearing characters, you'll like the woman that emerges in Mockingbird. Shields' Herculean effort to depict Lee succeeds, despite being sabotaged by her determined reticence on the subject."—Kathleen Krog, The Miami Herald
"Shields instinctively dwells on the part of the story most will find interesting: the friendship between Lee and Truman Capote . . . What Shields does best in this book is show how difficult it is to write once you've written."—Rheta Grimsley, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"Shields' 'portrait,' something short of a full-scale biography, is captivating . . . He makes the ghostly woman flesh and blood, so that readers can speculate on their own why her story turned out so unexpectedly."—Steve Weinberg, The Denver Post
"[A] highly readable account of [Harper Lee's] life, times, rivals and neighbors . . . Shields has meticulously tracked her from her tomboy childhood in Monroeville, Alabama . . . to New York, where she went to write."—Bill Bell, New York Daily News
"Shields nimbly escorts us through Nelle's progression from scrappy tomboy . . . to wise-cracking, cigarette-smoking, fashion-resistant coed at the University of Alabama."—Dan Cryer, The Boston Sunday Globe
"[Shields' portrait] is well worth reading for the legions that love her famous novel. The book is filled with sourced details about Lee's family, her childhood, her advanced academic life and the history of her hometown. But best of all, Shields manages to capture Lee's personality: unconventional and independent, with a wicked sense of humor."—Sharon L. Bond, St. Petersburg Times
"[This book] is a fascinating look at both Lee and her book . . . Although his subject never cooperated with Shields . . . he manages to bring her vividly to life in this impressive biography."—Elizabeth Bennett, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"[This biography is] as readable, convincing and engrossing as Lee's literary wonder."—Ann Hellmuth, Orlando Sentinel
"Shields' first-ever biography of the fascinating author . . . not only tackles the obvious questions, but provides background that will satisfy the most avid Nelle Harper Lee fans . . . With this comprehensive, readable and fascinating biography, Shields has ferreted out and preserved many pearls that cast light on the enigmatic [author]."—Anne Neville, The Buffalo News
"Harper Lee caught the beauty of America with To Kill a Mockingbird, but has remained something of a mystery ever since. Charles J. Shields's portrait of her, Mockingbird, shows us a quietly reclusive, down-to-earth woman with an enormous gift and documents her struggle to live with that gift for the rest of her life. Shields evocation of both the woman and her beautiful, sleepy, and smoldering South are pitch perfect."—Anne River Siddons, author of Sweetwater Creek and other books
"Harper Lee's intense personal privacy sets daunting limitations for a biographer, but Charles Shields has ingeniously recovered the feel of her childhood world of Monroeville, Alabama, and the small-town Southern customs and vivid personalities that shaped her prickly independence. Detailed memories of Lee's classmates and friends are interwoven with dramatic recreations of key events and stories of her friendships and literary collaborations, all fleshing out the general narrative of her development as a novelist. Close attention to her friendship with Truman Capote and the conditions of the writing and then the filming of To Kill a Mockingbird offer special fascination."—Louise Westling, Professor of English, University of Oregon, author of Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor
"If there is a great American novel, certainly To Kill a Mockingbird is it. But, for all of us who love it, its author has always been an enigma. Did Harper Lee really write this classic? And if she did, why didn't she ever write another book? And who is Harper Lee, anyway? Finally, a writer has done the necessary research to reveal the surprising answers. To every To Kill a Mockingbird reader, I send this message: The story isn't over. There's so much more to come, and you'll find it all in Charles Shields' delightful and insightful Mockingbird."—Homer Hickam, author of Rocket Boys
"Shields takes on the elusive writer in this first-ever biography of her. Without direct input from his subject, the author's extensive research combines sources in local-history collections, interviews and correspondence with Lee's acquaintances, and Internet resources to piece together the details of the writer's life. Starting with Lee's childhood in Monroeville, AL, Shields depicts the people and events that inspired To Kill a Mockingbird's characters. A picture develops of a girl who would face down any bully, a nonconformist whose sorority roommates kicked her out after one semester but who made an impact on the campus with her presence, a woman with a wicked sense of humor and a writer with a voice and themes of prejudice and justice that resonate. Students and curious fans alike will find material here to further their understanding of her work and life. Extensive source notes and a student-friendly bibliography are included."—Charlotte Bradshaw, School Library Journal
"With all of the newly revived interest in Harper Lee that the movie Capote has generated, this first ever study of her life should, in turn, spark a bit of a buzz among scholars and the general public. Shields, a journalist and author of nonfiction books for young adults, manages to portray effectively the author of To Kill a Mockingbird without receiving any help from Lee herself. Instead, he has interviewed her friends, colleagues, and school acquaintances and visited many special manuscript collections at universities and archives. What emerges is a well-written profile of a Southern writer who was a rebel in her small Alabama town as she was growing up and attending college. Lee discovered that she wanted to be a writer rather than a lawyer (as her father, an attorney himself, desired). Her only novel drew upon her experiences and her Southern milieu, but its huge success and influence made it difficult for her to write a second book. She became, if not a recluse, then certainly a person who valued privacy over fame and public attention. The best chapter details how Lee and her childhood friend Truman Capote went to Kansas to research the crime and its aftermath that would later become In Cold Blood. Recommended."—Library Journal

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

"As a reader I loathe Introductions," Nelle Harper Lee once wrote. But, with apologies to the subject, I must say that one is necessary for this book, the first ever about the woman who gave the world To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most influential pieces of fiction produced in the United States. In a "Survey of Lifetime Reading Habits" conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1991, researchers found that To Kill a Mockingbird ranked second only to the Bible "as making a difference in people's lives." Forty-six years after its publication, the novel still draws almost a million
Read the full excerpt


  • Charles J. Shields

  • Charles J. Shields, a former English teacher who taught Harper Lee's novel for yearshas a BA in English and an MA in American history from the University of Illinois, where he was a James Scholar. He and his wife, Guadalupe, reside in Barboursville, Virginia.
  • Charles J. Shields Jen Fariello
    Charles J. Shields


    Charles J. Shields

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