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Harper Lee’s gamble could undermine her Mockingbird

Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, will have a more adult centre of gravity. Chris Burke

Harper Lee’s gamble could undermine her Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, and was voted The Greatest Novel of All Time in a London Daily Telegraph poll of 2008. To say there was a little pressure on its follow-up – some 55 years later – would be an understatement.

Lee, 88, has announced she will in July publish her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, involving some of the same characters as To Kill a Mockingbird. It is certain to be a commercial success, and indeed Lee’s publishers, Harper Collins, are planning an initial print run of 2 million copies.

In truth, though, Go Set a Watchman will be less a “new” novel than a variorum edition, or “director’s cut,” of To Kill a Mockingbird itself. In that work’s original manuscript, which turned up by chance last year, the focus is not so much on the six-year-old Scout Finch, from whose perspective Mockingbird is related, but on Scout Finch as a New York lawyer who returns to her fictional southern town of Maycomb to visit her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, who defended Tom Robinson against charges of rape.

Lee’s original editor persuaded her to relinquish this adult centre of gravity, to abandon her ambitious modernist time-shifts, and to tell Scout’s story not through flashback but through the eyes of a child within a more traditional linear sequence. As things turned out, one of the reasons for Mockingbird’s immense popularity was the way the book reconciled edgy and difficult racial issues through a child’s apparently innocent consciousness.

In that sense, Mockingbird spoke perfectly to its time, manifesting itself in classrooms throughout the world as a less rebarbative version of Huckleberry Finn, with Lee’s book speaking to the complexities of American racial conflict from within the safe confines of family life.

Although the novel does address issues of rape, sexual violence and embryonic sexuality, it simultaneously keeps them at a safe distance through the way it mediates them all through the eyes of a young child. But since its publication, the treatment of race in American fiction has moved on apace, in works by Toni Morrison and many others. It will be interesting to see whether Lee’s “new” novel stands the scrutiny of readers in a different century.

Harper Lee, circa 1962. Wikimedia Commons

Like her exact contemporary JD Salinger, who died in 2010, Lee has made a profitable career out of various forms of silence, both artistic and personal. Not only did she never publish another book after Mockingbird, she also refused consistently to speak or grant interviews about her famous novel.

With typical reticence, when declining to address one Alabama audience after being inducted into an Academy of Honor she remarked on how “it’s better to be silent than to be a fool”.

Go Set a Watchman will thus represent a significant risk for this least productive of writers. It will be interesting to see whether this first version of the novel does actually succeed in addressing racial and family issues in all of their multifarious adult complexity. Lee’s recent remarks on how she was “a first-time writer, so I did what I was told” would seem to imply a belief on her part that the original editor did her a disservice, artistically if not commercially, by editing out the story’s flashbacks and turning the book into a more conventional narrative.

On the other hand, if Go Set a Watchman disappoints, readers may conclude that the original editors knew what they were doing and that the book’s mass-market appeal derives not from its artistic subtlety or complexity but from its sentimental pungency, its capacity to hit all the right notes.

George W. Bush presented Lee with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007, and Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 2010, precisely because Mockingbird ticks so many of America’s conventional boxes. The novel textually valorises racial empathy, legal justice, family feeling and innate childhood wisdom, and as a cultural object it embodies the classic American virtue of overwhelming popularity in a commercial marketplace.

It would not have been so surprising if Go Set a Watchman had been published as a scholarly curiosity after Lee’s death, just as unfinished manuscripts of Salinger and Ralph Ellison have been produced recently by academic publishers. But by sanctioning the publication during her lifetime, Lee would seem to be taking the bold gamble late in life of staking a claim for artistic originality and legitimacy.

Concurrently, she runs the risk of undermining, or at least placing in a different light, the market niche of an indeterminate patriotic sentiment on which all of her fame and fortune have been based.


See also:
To Kill a Mockingbird, My Brilliant Career and long-lost ‘sequels’