The elusive Harper Lee

Thomas Mallon’s review of Charles J. Shields’ Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee doubles as a dismissal of To Kill a Mockingbird, which I last read in junior high school and have been meaning to revisit since I saw Capote.

But it makes Lee sound fascinating.

During the Second World War, Lee, a student at Huntingdon College, in Montgomery, shunned the standard cardigan-and-pearls attire of the all-female institution in favor of a bomber jacket she’d been given by her brother, an Army Air Corps cadet. Her language was “salty,” and she sometimes smoked a pipe, and, while her face seems to have been pleasantly approachable, she described herself as “ugly as sin.” After she transferred to the undergraduate law program at the University of Alabama, mostly to please her father, her lack of polish struck some as ill-suited to the judicial decorum she was being trained to observe.

Growing up, she had preferred tackle to touch football, and tended to bully her friends, including the young Truman Capote, who, during the late nineteen-twenties and the thirties, was fobbed off by his feckless mother on relatives who lived in Lee’s home town, Monroeville. He put her into his fiction at least twice — as Idabel Tompkins (“I want so much to be a boy”), in “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” and as Ann (Jumbo) Finchburg, in “The Thanksgiving Visitor.” Lee did the same for him in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” turning the boy Truman into Dill, an effeminate schemer with an enormous capacity for lying. One year, Lee’s father gave her and Truman a twenty-pound Underwood typewriter, which the two children managed to shift back and forth between their houses and use in the composition of collaborative fictions about the neighbors.


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