“Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee”

I just finished a fun read: Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles Shields, which as the title speaks for itself, was a biography of the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most popular classics of all time.


To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book Harper Lee ever wrote. She started a novel after the book was published and did some research for another book about a murder in another town in Alabama, similar to In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, but she never finished either. By the way, In Cold Blood is an excellent read and the movie was great, too, with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Capote.

“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 readers annually. Maybe that is because its lessons of human dignity and respect for others remain fundamental and universal.” (Introduction of Mockingbird)

The important themes in To Kill a Mockingbird centered around racial prejudice in the South towards black people (Tom Robinson) and also prejudice towards anyone who is different and misunderstood in some way (Boo Radley). And because it is told through the eyes of a young girl (Scout), the reader follows her coming of age journey as she watches her lawyer father, Atticus, defend this man, and comes face to face with her own mistaken fears of Boo Radley.

It was interesting learning about Harper Lee’s childhood (she is still alive, in her 80’s, and living in Monroeville, Alabama, where she grew up, with her older sister, Alice), her ups and downs with her friend Truman Capote, the real-life events that inspired the book’s plot, the people who discovered and nurtured her talent as a writer, the process of making the movie with Gregory Peck, and seeing her personality emerge and change as the years passed by, particularly as she reacted to her unexpected success.

“As my research mounted, it seemed clearer to me that the question of what became of Lee’s career had to do with the nature of creativity — and the power of community. As a young woman in her early thirties, Lee was fortunate to come in contact with a handful of people in the arts who believed in her. After years of trying to write a novel, she was suddenly, through the generosity of friends, given money to live on for a year so she could write full-time. Then she was introduced to an agent who nurtured her talent. Next, her manuscript landed in the hands of an editor who recognized an unpretentious, hardworking writer and was willing to take her on as a kind of apprentice.” (Introduction of Mockingbird)

That is quite powerful, when you think about it. If it hadn’t been for that supportive and nurturing community, To Kill a Mockingbird may have never have come to fruition.

So when it comes to being successful in life, Harper Lee’s experience is proof that having a supportive community around you really paves the way forward. And we see that over and over again, particularly in young people– if there is a supportive adult in their lives, chances are they are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.

A close friend recently shared that several negative experiences with teachers critiquing her written pieces dampened her enthusiasm for writing. And after those experiences she no longer was motivated to write. This example really illustrates the power teachers have in really nurturing a child’s passion or just shooting it down.

So let’s all be supportive of each other’s passions and we shall conquer mountains!

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3 Responses to “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee”

  1. Karen Story says:

    PBS did a nice documentary about Harper as well, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication: http://video.pbs.org/video/2194593065

  2. David Davis says:

    TKAM is one of my all-time favorite books. I just realized that three of my top five books take place in the South, an area I don’t generally regard as hospitable to “the different” (and yes, I’m painting with a broad brush). The others are “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (Maya Angelou) and “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All” (Allan Gurganus).

    But I’d have to say TKAM is the most resonant. I still get teary-eyed thinking about the story. A real gem. And the movie is that rarity: a film that matches its masterpiece in storytelling and heart.

    People have lamented Lee’s output: this is her only book. I’d say she has given us more with one book than most writers could dream of with twenty.

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