To Resurrect a Mockingbird

February 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

What are we to make of the sudden news that Harper Lee will publish a pre-sequel, for lack of a better term, of To Kill a Mockingbird? The literary community appears to be responding to the news that Go Set a Watchman, a novel set in Maycomb, Alabama twenty years after the events of Mockingbird with Scout Finch as its protagonist, is due to be published this summer with a mixture of hopeful enthusiasm and understandable apprehension.

At Jezebel, Madeleine Davies offers fair warning that we should be suspicious:

Sadly, this news is not without controversy or complications. Harper Lee’s sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee’s estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.

Harper Lee is 88 years old. When I saw her name pop up on my phone via a New York Times Breaking News alert, I feared that she had died. Her vision and hearing were both severely impaired by a stroke eight years ago, and Davies writes that Lee “often doesn’t understand the contracts that she signs.”

Mockingbird was supposedly written at the suggestion of an editor who read Go Set a Watchman and wanted to know what Scout and Jem Finch were like as children. Did Alice Lee know something about the contents of Watchman that made her wish to shelter it (but not Mockingbird) from the light of day? Did she fear it would harm the universality of the first book, or did she think that the second book just wasn’t any good? And can we trust that all aspects of authorial intent will continue to be respected if the book’s author is no longer of sound mind?

My hope is that, if Watchman is ultimately published, its editors leave the text alone. Let its assumed flaws as a young writer’s first novel remain in place, if only for the historical value. We might be surprised: the fact that Watchman was written before Mockingbird could suggest that there won’t be much of an emotional “distance” from the first book (Scout, you’ll recall, is already an adult when she narrates Mockingbird); the characters had not taken hold in the public consciousness as they have over the past six decades, and since Lee did not write the book with any kind of pressure, perhaps she would not have had the impulse to do anything contrived, loud, or forced to the narrative. At best, the two books could be part of a larger, more expansive twentieth-century portrait of a young woman growing up in the Deep South during the civil rights era. It will be strange to behold these characters sprung from the frame through which we have long regarded them, but I suspect that, even if Go Set a Watchman turns out to be awful, Atticus and Scout and Jem and Boo Radley will retain their cultural import, as humans seeking to live moral lives free of prejudice and pressure and fear.

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