Charles J. Shields is the author of the New York Times bestseller Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, which he has adapted here for younger readers.What emerges in this riveting portrait is the story of an unconventional, high-spirited woman who drew on her love of writing and her Southern home to create a book that continues to speak to new generations of readers. Anyone who has enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird will appreciate this glimpse into the life of its fascinating author.
I Am Scout is a 2009 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.
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I Am Scout
The Biography of Harper Lee
By Charles J. Shields
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2008 Charles J. Shields
All rights reserved.
"Ellen" Spelled Backward
"Get offa him!" Nelle Roared. "Get off now!" Though she was only seven years old in 1933, Nelle Harper Lee peeled the older boys away from her friend and next-door neighbor Truman Streckfus Persons. He was lying on his back, red-faced and tearful, in the sandpit of the Monroe County Elementary School playground in Monroeville, Alabama. The bigger boys had been playing a game called Hot Grease in the Kitchen, Go Around! With their arms crossed, they dared anyone to try to get past them and into the sandpit.
But Truman, who adored attention, couldn't resist. He had marched directly toward the older boys and forced his way through. What he didn't expect was how furiously they would attack him. Shouts and flailing fists assaulted him, until Nelle barged into the circle and pulled him to his feet. Then she shoved past the angry boys and escorted her injured friend away, glancing over her shoulder to make sure she and Truman weren't being followed.
But most boys knew better than to try that. Nelle had a reputation as a fearsome stomach-puncher, foot-stomper, and hair-puller, who "could talk mean like a boy." Three boys had tried challenging her once. They came at her, one at a time, bravely galloping toward a dragon. Within moments, each had landed facedown, spitting gravel and crying "Uncle!"
She was "a sawed-off but solid tomboy with an all-hell-let-loose wrestling technique," wrote Truman of a short story character he later based on Nelle. Girls tended to be wary around her, too. During a game of softball, Nelle slammed into the girl playing first base, bowling her over and ripping her dress. "I was not fond of Nelle," said the former ballplayer, thinking back on that collision years later. "She was a bully, thought she knew so much more than anybody else, and probably did."
Bully was a word often used to describe Nelle, but it can also be seen as an envious compliment. She was a fighter on the playground and frightened those who wouldn't stand up for themselves. She relied on herself and was independent, giving the impression at times that she was snobbish. And because she didn't try to conceal how smart and curious she was, she defied rules of good behavior for children. A fourth-grade classmate watched "in awe when Nelle would 'talk back' to the teachers. She was strong-willed and outspoken." When she called her teacher, Mrs. McNeil, by her first name "Leighton," Mrs. McNeil was shocked. But why? Nelle wanted to know. She called her father by his first name! It was typical of how Nelle went her own way most of the time. Her eldest sister, Alice, 15 years older, later admitted that her little sister, the youngest of four children, "isn't much of a conformist."
* * *
It was true she was tough and independent. She preferred wearing a scruffy pair of overalls to a dress and hanging upside down from the chinaberry tree in her yard to sitting quietly in a church. But actually, her folks were upper-middle class. Her home life was the product of several generations of southern Alabama farmers raising themselves up from hardship.
The Lees had long been Deep South Southerners. Nelle's father was the son of a Civil War veteran, Cader Alexander Lee, a private who fought in 22 battles with the 15th Alabama Regiment. (Her family is not related to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, as encyclopedias claim.) After the South surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia in April 1865, Cader Lee, 26, did his best to steer his life back on course. On September 6, 1866, he married 22-year-old Theodocia Eufrassa Windham, a sister of a distant cousin killed during the war. Less than two years later, the first of their nine children was born. In the middle of the brood, Amasa Coleman Lee, Harper Lee's father, was born July 19, 1880, in Georgiana, a village in Butler County, Alabama, 60 miles south of Montgomery. His family nicknamed him "Coley." Within a few years, they moved to northern Florida.
Coley Lee's upbringing took place in a "staunch Methodist home," he recalled, meaning his parents frowned on drinking, card playing, and other time-wasting behavior. On Sundays, his father hitched up the horses for a three-and-a-half-mile trip from their farm in Chipley, Florida, to services at the local Methodist church. The message of those sermons became the central philosophy of his life: salvation through believing in the gospel of Jesus was only the first step in fulfilling a responsibility to help reform humanity. Years later, as a civic leader in Monroeville and an Alabama state legislator, Nelle's father was a strong believer in the need to uplift people. "Progress," he argued, "might be defined as any activity which brings the greatest possible number of benefits to the greatest possible number of people."
Even after Coley reached the age for regular schooling, chores on the farm took precedence over schoolwork. Some winter evenings he ran out of daylight before he could finish his lessons. But he was a steady reader, and at 16 he passed the examination to teach. For three years he taught school near Marianna, Florida.
Then, eager for better wages, he shook the dust of Florida from his heels. In southern Alabama, big sawmills were eating deep into the piney woods — one appearing every five miles or so along railroad tracks, filling the air with the scream of buzz saws and the vinegary smell of fresh lumber. Mills employed 50 to 80 men, about one third of them black, and there was plenty of work for laborers. But Coley — introducing himself as "A. C. Lee" now — was a whiz at numbers and landed a job as a bookkeeper. Over the next several years, a series of better-paying positions followed. Finally, he found work at the Flat Creek Mill in Finchburg, Alabama, a tiny town named after the postmaster, James Finch. Then one day at church, A.C. met Finch's 19-year-old daughter, Frances Cunningham Finch.
* * *
Frances's father was a farmer and part-time postmaster. Her mother, Ellen C. Finch (her maiden name was Williams), came from money: her family owned a plantation in southwest Alabama. The land was excellent, bordered as it was by the Alabama River, then rising into high fields above the floodplains. Steamboats arrived to off-load goods and take on the Williamses' cotton, raised and picked by slaves. It was one of many real-life places and people that Nelle later drew on when she came to write To Kill a Mockinghird. "Finch's Landing," as she renamed the Williamses' plantation in the novel, "produced everything required to sustain life except ice, wheat flour, and articles of clothing, supplied by river-boats from Mobile." Although James Finch and his wife were not as well-off as their in-laws, they gave their children the best education they could afford.
When their daughters Frances and Alice each reached 15, the Finches enrolled them in the new Alabama Girls' Industrial School in Montevallo, a progressive institution for white girls. In today's terms, it resembled a private college prep school. The students studied English, Latin, history, and mathematics. In addition, they could choose from vocational electives, including stenography; photography; typewriting; printing; bookkeeping; indoor carpentry; electrical construction; clay modeling; architectural and mechanical drawing; sewing; dressmaking; cooking; laundering; sign and fresco painting; home nursing; and "other practical industries." The curriculum guaranteed that graduates could make their own way in the world.
To keep the focus on academics, the girls wore uniforms: a navy blue dress and cap trimmed with white cord and a tassel. Trips off campus required a chaperone because, as the school catalog warned, "pupils are not here to enter society, but to be educated"; furthermore, "they are not allowed to correspond with gentlemen, and visits from them is positively prohibited under penalty of expulsion."
The Finches were wholeheartedly in favor of this no-nonsense curriculum for cultivating young women. And so when A. C. Lee entered the picture — a self-made, self-educated young man who was preparing himself for bigger things — they recognized a good match for their daughter. And Frances — an artistic, some might say pampered young woman — had every reason to expect the kind of genteel life she had been educated for.
The couple married on June 22, 1910. A.C. was 30 years old, and Frances, 19. During the ensuing years, the Lees would have four children: Alice (1911); Frances Louise (1916); and Edwin (1920). When their youngest child, Nelle, was born on April 28, 1926, her parents gave her the first name of her maternal grandmother, Ellen Finch, spelled backward.
* * *
In 1912, two years after their marriage, the Lees moved with one-year-old Alice to Nelle's future birthplace, Monroeville, 15 miles southeast of Finchburg where the couple had met. For 80 years, since its founding as the county seat of Monroe County in 1832, Monroeville had been snoozing in the muggy breezes from the Gulf of Mexico, a pretty sad spectacle.
The reason Monroeville had failed to flourish was that it was a poor choice for the county seat in the first place. Everything and everybody had to rattle into town overland because there were no rivers or railroads nearby. By 1860, the population of Monroeville teetered at about 300 — half white and half black. A Confederate soldier passing through town in the mid-1860s, during the Civil War, described it as "the most boring place in the world." Forty years later, in 1900, there were still no paved streets or sidewalks and no street lights. Houses and other buildings were unpainted; and churches and schools looked dilapidated.
But in 1912, when the Lees arrived in Monroeville, the town was finally ready to prosper. A sign of progress rumbled and whistled its way into town that year, when the first locomotive of the Manistee & Repton Railroad arrived on freshly laid tracks. In fact, the new railroad was the reason the Lees had moved to Monroeville. Mr. Lee had been newly hired as financial manager with the law firm of Barnett, Bugg & Jones, handling their interests in the Manistee & Repton. The M&R, as local people called it, began hauling freight and passengers east from Monroeville to Manistee Junction, where it joined the mighty Louisville & Nashville Railroad.
The benefits to Monroeville of the railroad's arrival were staggering. After 1912, brick structures began replacing old weather-beaten wooden buildings, giving the town the appearance of real permanence. Although Monroeville's economy was based on only a handful of humble but necessary industries — a sawmill, a cotton ginnery, a gristmill, a fertilizer plant, a machine shop, lumberyard, and a waterworks plant — an enormous new high school opened the same year the railroad arrived, indicating that a better future lay ahead for Monroeville's young people.
A.C.'s career prospered in the offices of Barnett, Bugg & Jones. First, he served as the financial manager; then, by "reading for the law," as it was called — a kind of home-schooling under the guidance of attorneys — he passed the bar examination in 1915.
Plenty of legal cases would likely come his way, as Monroeville was the county seat. The enormous white-domed courthouse, built in 1903 in the center of the town square, was "one of the handsomest and most conveniently appointed in the state," boasted the Monroe Journal, "and one that would do credit to a county far exceeding Monroe in wealth and population." From the corridors of the courthouse, all the administrators and servants of county government spent every weekday issuing a paper stream of court orders, motions, certificates, writs, deeds, wills, plats, bills of sale, affidavits, and depositions. As Scout says about Maycomb, the fictional town based on Monroeville, in To Kill a Mockingbird, "Because its primary reason for existence was government, Maycomb was spared the grubbiness that distinguished most Alabama towns its size."
Steadily A. C. Lee was ascending the rungs of respectability: from teacher in a country school, to bookkeeper, to financial manager, to attorney.
* * *
Despite outward signs that the Lees were doing well, many people thought there was something a little odd about them. Mr. and Mrs. Lee were educated people, and their children — Alice, Louise, Edwin, and Nelle — were known to be bright and friendly. What seemed peculiar about the Lees were signs that the family was coping with problems at home.
To begin with, any thoughtful person could see that A. C. Lee tended to keep himself in check. He stuck to routines and was methodical and reserved. He often gave the impression of having something heavy on his mind.
"Mr. Lee was detached," Truman's aunt Marie recalled, "not particularly friendly, especially with children. ... He was not the sort of father who came up to his children, ruffled their hair, and made jokes for their amusement." In Mr. Lee's presence, said an acquaintance, "you didn't feel comfortable with him. But that he was nice."
Part of his standoffishness around children may have been that he was already in his 50s when Nelle was in first grade. (In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout says about her father, "When Jem and I asked him why he was so old, he said he got started late, which we felt reflected on his abilities and his manliness.")
Of course, some of his reserve may also have been rooted in Southern manners, too. Doctors, lawyers, teachers — professional people in general — were expected to behave in a courteous but authoritative way. They were educated, and therefore acknowledged leaders in the community. Said the son of a businessman who golfed with A. C. Lee for years, "I doubt they ever called each other by first names. Those were different times."
Seen up close, A. C. Lee was of average height and weight, with a flat, serious face and mild expression. Behind a pair of large, round glasses, his thoughtful gaze looked owlish. Every weekday morning, he would walk down the steps of his wood-frame white one-story bungalow on South Alabama Avenue on his way to his law offices above the bank in the town square. He did not greet passersby on the street with a hearty "good morning." If the weather was rainy, Mr. Lee drove his black Chevrolet. He was a Chevy man his entire life, not given to flashiness even though he was one of the wealthiest men in town.
He wore a dark three-piece suit that sagged and lost its crease in the Alabama heat during the summertime. He always wore a suit, everywhere, even when golfing and the only time anyone could recall him hunting. That day he trudged around under the trees and shot a few doves — almost as a favor to the friend who had invited him — then he went straight back to the office. He wasn't much interested in that sort of thing. One of his former golf caddies remembered Mr. Lee as "much more of an intellectual than a physical man. The image of shooting the mad dog or of facing down the crowd of rough necks [as Atticus Finch does] has never quite rung true to me. The strong intellectual stand, though, seems very natural."
When he was lost in thought he had a habit of absentmindedly fumbling with things, including his watch, a fountain pen, or his special favorite: a tiny pocketknife. He flipped it up with his thumb and caught it like a coin while he talked. Once, a store clerk waited while Mr. Lee practiced flipping different penknives until he found one with exactly the right weight and balance. "He could hold it between two fingers and thump it in a way that it would just spin around," recalled Charles Skinner, a friend of Nelle's older brother, Edwin. "He'd stand there and talk to you — he wouldn't look at the knife, he'd just thump it around. And it would just be whirling around in his hand. It was an automatic thing with him, I don't think he ever knew what he was doing."
In addition to playing with objects while he spoke, his manner of speaking was slow and careful. He did not make conversation as much as let fall a comment that usually began with "ah-hem!" contained "uh," and sometimes, for emphasis, ended with "ah-rum!" Generally, he preferred listening to talking, while sucking on a piece of hard candy.
Even on social occasions, he was never one to cut loose. He never accepted a drink or offered to pay for one. A. C. Lee, everyone in town knew, was a strict Methodist, and when it came to liquor, he was "dry as an old sun-bleached bone."
Excerpted from I Am Scout by Charles J. Shields. Copyright © 2008 Charles J. Shields. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Note From the Author ix
Chapter 1 "Ellen" Spelled Backward 1
Chapter 2 "Apart People" 22
Chapter 3 First Hints of To Kill a Mockingbird 36
Chapter 4 Rammer Fammer 60
Chapter 5 "Willing to Be Lucky" 78
Chapter 6 "See NL's Notes" 103
Chapter 7 Mockingbird Takes Off 126
Chapter 8 "Oh, Mr. Peck!" 146
Chapter 9 The Second Novel 173
Chapter 10 Quiet Time 192
Reading Group Guide
CHAPTER 1: "ELLEN" SPELLED BACKWARD
In fiction, characters are created by what they say, what they do, and what others say about them. How is Nelle's character created using these three methods?
Slavery was long over by the time of Nelle's childhood. But what can you say about the status of whites and blacks in 1930s Monroeville? Draw on examples from this chapter.
Chapter 2: "APART PEOPLE"
Based on what you've read so far in I Am Scout, why might Nelle not have tried to become her mother's ideal daughter?
Harper Lee says that because most folks had no money during the Great Depression, children were forced to live in their imaginations. Now, of course, there are video games, television, organized sports, and so on. Has this change made a difference in children's ability to imagine? What's your opinion?
Harper Lee drew heavily on real people for her characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. Was she wrong to do this? Why or why not?
CHAPTER 3: FIRST HINTS OF TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
How are Harper Lee's behavior and values consistent from the time she was a child until she became a young adult? Can you make a connection to Scout?
One of Nelle's classmates at Huntingdon later said that she seemed determined to be different. In what ways did she defy expectations for female undergraduates?
Sometimes photographs can give clues about the past and people. Look at the photograph on p. 50. Study it. What do you notice about Harper Lee compared with the two young women standing beside her? Look at the dress, body language, and expressions.
CHAPTER 4: RAMMER JAMMER
Read Nelle's column on pp. 66–67. What is she attacking and how does this fit with her values?
This chapter doesn't specify what it was about the nature of being a lawyer that repelled Harper Lee. Do you have any ideas based on what you've read about her so far?
1948 was both the year that Truman Capote published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and that Harper Lee left home for New York. What argument might Harper Lee have used to convince her father that she needed to relocate to New York?
CHAPTER 5: "WILLING TO BE LUCKY"
Harper Lee didn't show her creative writing to anyone when she was a child; then she didn't send out her stories for almost ten years while she was in New York. When the Browns gave her the money to write full time, she replied, "It's such a fantastic gamble. It's such a great risk." Can you draw a conclusion about this pattern in her behavior?
Alabama Governor B. M. Miller received a petition signed by citizens of Monroe County that persuaded him "there is much doubt as to the man [Walter Lett] being guilty." He commuted Lett's sentence from death to life in prison. Think about the era. Why didn't the governor just pardon Walter Lett?
CHAPTER 6: "SEE NL'S NOTES"
Why, in your opinion, was Capote failing at first to get the story in Garden City, Kansas?
Some people might accuse Nelle and Truman of invading people's privacy, such as by visiting the Clutter's house. Others would argue they were fulfilling their jobs as writers. What do you think?
What strengths did Nelle bring to getting the story in Kansas that Truman didn't have?
CHAPTER 7: MOCKINGBIRD TAKES OFF
Think about what was happening in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Do you think social and political events in America influenced how To Kill a Mockingbird was received?
What are the indications that fame will be difficult for Harper Lee?
CHAPTER 8: "OH, MR. PECK!"
Even to this day, older residents of Monroeville fondly remember Gregory Peck's visit to their town. Why did Peck behave as he did?
Point to indications in this chapter and earlier ones that Truman will not want to share credit for In Cold Blood with Nelle, and why.
CHAPTER 9: THE SECOND NOVEL
Are there any clues in Harper Lee's interview with Roy Newquist (pp. 181–182) that she will be unable to publish a second novel? Support your reasons by interpreting what she says.
What do you think of Alice's explanation that a burglar stole the manuscript of Harper Lee's second novel?
CHAPTER 10: QUIET TIME
What are some reasons, either personal or artistic, Harper Lee might have stopped work on The Reverend.
Should the biographer have brought up the rumor of the drowning incident? Why or why not?
What does Harper Lee mean by, she "forgave herself"?