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Starstruck journalist's banal book wastes access to Harper Lee

A journalist's deferential chronicle of Harper Lee's life still resulted in trouble with the reclusive author, writes Madeline Gressel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 12:34pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 August, 2014, 12:34pm
 

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee
by Marja Mills
The Penguin Press
2 stars

In 2001, Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills travelled to visit American author Harper Lee in the small but charming southern town of Monroeville in Alabama. Over the next four years, they developed a friendship.

That story constitutes the entire beginning, middle and end of Mills' new book, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee. There are no surprises along the way - no unexpected crises, no fallings-out, no deep emotional transformations.

Mills' account raises bigger questions than she asks or answers: why are the words of a beloved novel not enough? What do we hope to gain by prying into the life of its creator?

That snippet in itself, however, is news. Nelle Harper Lee, creator of beloved American classic To Kill a Mockingbird, is a famously reclusive figure and no friend to the press. After publishing her one and only novel in 1960 and winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1961, Lee retreated from the public forum, appearing less and writing nothing.

At the time of Mills' first visit in 2001, Lee was 75. Her older sister, Alice, was 89 and still a practising lawyer, in the tradition of their father, A.C. Lee, Lee's model for Atticus Finch (Lee loves to call Alice "Atticus in a skirt"). Mills couldn't have, and didn't, expect a warm reception from the sisters, but that's what she found. They quietly welcomed her into their life, and the rest is dully and dutifully recorded in what Mills has called a memoir of her own, and not a biography of Lee.

The emotional crux of the book is Lee's alleged approval. At her advanced age, Mills posits, Nelle Harper (as her friends call her) and Alice finally wanted to get the facts right, and on paper. Apparently they saw Mills as the woman for the job and Mills trumpets that throughout the book as a personal revelation on both sides.

But just days before the book's release, Harper Lee said in a statement excoriating Mills that she did not, and had never, approved its creation. The statement, released on July 14 by Alice's law firm, Barnett Bugg Lee & Carter, says: "Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my co-operation is a falsehood." That's deeply, and disturbingly, at odds with Mills' premise.

The Mockingbird Next Door begins with a case for the defence: "I wasn't an unknown quantity but someone [Harper Lee] knew and trusted, sitting across the table from her. I wouldn't have been sitting there if I had included anything she had said was off the record, or if I had pushed her to divulge things she felt were no one's business." From the get-go, Mills braces for an attack.

Which is strange, considering the contents of the book. Readers expecting a deep dish of steamy gossip about Lee, her decision to stop writing, her sexuality and perhaps her relationship with novelist Truman Capote will be disappointed. Those subjects are mentioned - but in such a glancing, furtive way that Mills does more to raise speculation than settle it.

Instead, you'll find a 284-page catalogue of the minutiae of Lee's daily life, described in clunky and unimaginative prose: she enjoys coffee at McDonald's. She loves to read (surprise). She feeds the ducks. She's hard of hearing and communicates by fax. There's little except Mills' long-winded musings about Lee's genius to distinguish Lee's life from that of any other old southern lady: "I shouldn't have the cheese grits. But I'm going to." And presumably, Lee likes it that way.

All this might be charming in its way, were it not for Mills' fawning tone, alternately anxious and self-congratulatory. Like clockwork, at the end of every chapter Mills reminds us she's star-struck: "[Nelle and Alice] were reading peacefully, companionably, as they did so many evenings. Routine for them. Magical for me."

She ecstatically describes every hug and compliment handed down by Lee and her familiars - the literary equivalent of a humblebrag. Why her? "I think after that first day or two you were here, word also got back that you were an intelligent, charming young lady who seemed like a thoughtful person as well," she quotes the Lees' good friend Thomas Butts telling her.

But Mills is also afraid Lee will cast her out for some unintended gaffe or slight. "What if Nelle suddenly decided, as she had been known to do, that I was no longer trustworthy, that I was not someone she wanted to spend time with after all?"

Unfortunately, this combination of skittishness and overblown reverence prevents Mills from ever pushing Lee's limits or uncovering a meaningful vantage on Lee's life and legacy: Why did Lee never write again? What does Lee think of race relations in today's America? Sometimes Mills offers half-baked, hackneyed suppositions. More often, without the gall to approach Lee directly, she settles for the opinions of Lee's nearest and dearest, broaching exactly the topics Lee seems keen to avoid: "People sometimes asked [Thomas Butts] whether Nelle had dated and, if so, what her orientation was. 'I tell people I don't know'."

Here and there, we catch glimpses of Lee's mind. She is fierce, loyal, wry and observant (when Mills misreports Alice's pronunciation of Lee's name as Nail Hah-puh, Lee says: "You dropped her two social classes with one syllable.") Not all of it is flattering. Lee is clearly an intellect to be reckoned with (Mills won't be the one reckoning), but she also comes across as punitive, paranoid, obsessed with her legacy and, like many very old people, Luddite in a manner that seems dismissive and wilfully out of touch. "In an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms," she says, "I still plod along with books."

That's cold coming from a woman whose novel still sells hundreds of thousands of copies each year.

Mills also alludes to Lee's habit of making drunken and furious late-night telephone calls to friends.

At times, Mills mentions a 2006 biography of Harper Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields, which was well reviewed in The New York Times by Garrison Keillor. Shields pieced together the biography from satellite interviews and old published correspondences; compared to Mills, he was out in the cold. Mills seems to have no sense of the integrity this critical distance bestows on Shields' project, unentangled and unimpeded by any blossoming friendship with his subject.

In Mills' defence, it is obvious Lee welcomed Mills into her life and understood a book would result. Between 2005 and 2014, there was a cooling period between Mills and the Lees, perhaps a falling-out. Yet none of this is discussed.

Mills sticks to the party line - the book was approved - which leaves a gaping hole in the narrative. She must have written with the knowledge that Lee would disavow the book, however unfair, which makes certain passages, such as this excerpt from Butts' journal, perplexing: "I hope [Mills] does a good job with this series of articles, because [Nelle] has put lots of trust in her integrity. I would hate to see her wounded by any of this."

Inevitably, Mills' account raises bigger questions than she asks or answers: why are the words of a beloved novel not enough? What do we hope to gain by prying into the life of its creator?

Seventy years after the ascent of the New Criticism, which dismissed authorial intent as tangential to the process of interpreting a work of literature, Mills seems to believe that, through osmosis, watching Lee drink McDonald's coffee will illuminate the pages of her lovely novel.

thereview@scmp.com

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gravlingsgryt
This is a beautiful piece of hardheaded yet astute and subtle literary criticism: expressive and very well put.
Göran S.

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