February 4, 2015
Almost immediately after the stunning news broke yesterday morning that we might get to read a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, the story started to take an unsettling turn. What were the chances of a book manuscript—an early version of the famous novel—just turning up, “in either a safe deposit box, or a bank vault, and wrapped in a manuscript,” as Hugh van Dusen, Lee’s editor at HarperCollins hedged in a stunningly defensive and circuitous interview with Vulture last night. In response to the question of whether the manuscript had been edited, Van Dusen replied, “If it has been, nobody’s told me.” Has anyone actually talked to Lee? Do we know that she wants this book published, for sure? Is the recent death of her elder sister and fierce gatekeeper Alice a mere coincidence? There have been enough questions that we’ve now got journalists arguing that we should stop assuming Lee is being exploited, because Atticus Finch would have wanted us to see the best in everyone.
The assumption that underlies all this speculation is that the book will sell hundreds of thousands of copies and be as passionately embraced as its predecessor. Sequel, prequel, first draft, whatever: Our entertainment industry—both Hollywood and the big-five publishers—is utterly in thrall to the idea that three movies are better than one, and that people will line up and shell out for volume two, no matter what the quality. It’s worth pausing for a moment to remember that there’s a reason why most great works of literature don’t have sequels. Do you really want to read about a grown and smartened up Scout? Do you want to meet Atticus Finch as an old man, with the risk that his idealism has dimmed and his values become compromised with age? What are we really asking for here? And what will it do to Harper Lee’s status as the most renowned one-hit wonder in American literature?
It’s been 55 years since the story of Scout Finch and her heroic father gave readers an intimate portal through which to witness all that was mysterious and enraging about the ingrained injustices of the Jim Crow South. The book’s rare combination of popularity and critical success, cemented by the Pulitzer Prize and then Gregory Peck’s dashing and tortured film portrayal, established its place on best-seller lists and high-school syllabi for generations to come. Forty million copies sold, and never a peep of a follow-up, is enough to imbue the book with magic, as though it dropped from the sky. That magical quality is what the publishers seem to be banking on, with their tales of the similarly miraculous discovery of the second manuscript. Harper Lee’s not really a writer; she’s some kind of extremely forgetful conjurer.
But if we imagine for a minute that she’s actually a writer, the story looks a little different. Nelle “Harper’ Lee, the girl from small-town Alabama whom everyone figured was Scout grown up, went to New York in 1949 and found a job as an airline reservation clerk. She was introduced around by her childhood neighbor and friend, Truman Capote, who had been making a name for himself as a short-story writer, and in 1956 something magical did occur: money. Friends whom she’d met through Capote, the Broadway composer Michael Brown and his ballet-dancer wife, Joy Williams Brown, gave her a Christmas gift all writers need: a year of unstructured, unencumbered time. With the freedom to do nothing but write for a year, Lee worked. She began to explore her hometown, its characters and its quirks and its big mysteries, like how good, nice people could live with the racist inequality that structured their world.
The first version of a book called Atticus began to take shape. Her editor at J. B. Lippincott & Co. suggested that the story she was telling—about a young woman who returns to her Alabama hometown and recalls in flashback the formative drama of her childhood—would be stronger if it were immediate, told through the eyes and ears of her young alter ego. The chrysalis was ripped away, and To Kill a Mockingbird emerged. In the press release yesterday, Harper Lee painted herself as a naïve and pliable author—"I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” One might also contend that the editor was right.
Now, though, Lee is apparently relying on the word of a few unnamed people whom she says—or the press release says—she trusts, and they have deemed her early manuscript publishable. Jumping over the obvious objection (She’s Harper Lee! Her shopping lists are publishable!), we’re still left with a manuscript that’s being praised in the kind of terms that insist, again, on Lee’s magical abilities as an author. “We devoured it,” said Jonathan Burnham to Kate Snow on NBC News. “Only Harper Lee could have written this novel.” Its brilliance, its singularity, its lucky reappearance—it remains to be seen whether HarperCollins can keep that charmed circle closed, or whether reporters will try to crack it open with questions about the role of Tonja Carter, Lee’s attorney who’s apparently brokering the deal, while maintaining a positively Lee-style silence toward the press. Nobody’s saying how much money has changed hands, but the book—set to be published in July—is already Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller in books. It’s fair to assume that the 88-year-old Lee, and all of those acting for her, could name their price.
For anyone who works at writing, the fantasy of the best-selling “bolt from the blue” is a pernicious one. Publishers fuel it by offering just enough of those headline-making advances to make the paltry sums everyone else gets seem even paltrier. Scratch a real, published novelist—Harper Lee included—and you’ll unearth obsession, neurosis, paranoia, and maybe an unhealthy taste for booze, but also grueling hard work. Novels take multiple drafts. They take readers. They take editors. They’re a team effort, although the team—unlike the cast and crew of a movie or play—is usually invisible. The first version of this news story, which sounded as though Lee might have been secretly working on a new book for part or all of the past half-century, was somehow far more exciting.
It’s worth remembering that very few books in the American literary canon exist like Lee’s, widely read, loved, and respected but hardly ever subject to critical attention. Scholars don’t study it, books and essays are rarely written about it, unless they are “celebrations” of the impact it had on people when they were young. Flannery O’Connor once remarked that it was a “child’s book,” and in terms that echo modern debates about whether so-called adults should be reading so-called Young Adult fiction, sniffed that “folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book.” Partly this is because there’s so little available of the supporting texts scholars need—no archive exists of her letters, diaries, and drafts that scholars are able to visit and mine. Perhaps Go Set a Watchman will open up a new field of Lee scholarship, and it’s easy to see that things that might disappoint ordinary readers—this book was written first, and discarded, so it’s not written with the maturity and knowledge we’d ideally want from a sequel—are exactly the kinds of things to excite critics, especially those who want to see how a writer’s thinking evolved.
Andy Crank, assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama, has had an unusually busy couple of days fielding questions about Harper Lee and the American literary canon from journalists. He usually has to correct a misapprehension up front: he’s never actually taught To Kill a Mockingbird in his college-level literature classes. “It’s relegated to high school, that 9th to 12th grade 'intro to lit' ethos.” Teaching in Alabama, he can safely assume that his students have read the book—it’s mandated by the state. He brings it up in class, in the context of broader discussions about Alabama, Southern culture, and the problem of white “authorship” of the civil rights movement. But the book itself is seen as “kids’ stuff,” he says, not the subject of serious academic enquiry. That’s not to say it’s not beloved by scholars just as much as regular readers—a crossover that’s extremely rare. “I love this novel,” Crank says, praising Lee’s clear and unique voice, compelling characters and the simple moral clarity of the story. But those very qualities are what render it inaccessible to scholars. “It’s solved problem,” as Crank puts it. “There’s not much to unpack.” People have a deep nostalgia for the book, and a personal identification with the characters that can be hard to see past. By contrast, Crank teaches another much-beloved popular novel of the South in his classes—Gone with the Wind—but that’s a complex, troubling book that has generated a great deal of critical debate.
The news of the rediscovered Lee manuscript has had Crank veering between anticipation and anxiety. “The question of consent is huge,” he says, of the decision to publish. But he’s excited by the possibility that the book could “reignite the popular and critical imagination” around Harper Lee’s work, which has become stagnant, settled in nostalgia. It’s inspiring him to think about what it might look like to bring To Kill a Mockingbird back into the scrutiny of his classroom, getting his students to revisit it chapter by chapter. But the question of whether Go Set a Watchman can “live up” to its predecessor strikes him as absurd in the extreme. It’s not To Kill a Mockingbird 2.0. It’s “raw,” a work that shows “the beginning of the process” that led to the beloved novel, and readers need to understand what they’re getting. But whatever form it takes, Crank sees no danger to Harper Lee’s literary legacy.
Whatever the ultimate quality of Go Set a Watchman, it can’t help but bring its predecessor back down to Earth. It will no longer share that rare distinction with Gone With the Wind or Wuthering Heights, of being the single artistic statement made by an author in her lifetime. Instead, Harper Lee will take her place with Joseph Heller, whose Catch-22 appeared the year after To Kill a Mockingbird and achieved a similarly iconic status. In 1994, 33 years after the original novel was published, a sequel, Closing Time, revisited the characters in old age. Although it was received with mixed reviews, the sequel mainly provided readers and reviewers an opportunity to wax nostalgic about Catch-22. Heller had written other books in between, but none of them made much impact. Like Lee, Heller remained roped to the mast of his greatest achievement, and he found out that those who love a book can be apt to treat its creator as little better than an impediment between them and a world they want to inhabit. But great literature deserves to be tussled over, questioned, challenged, rejected, rediscovered, rethought. It does nothing for our cultural intelligence to put books or authors up on pedestals where we can’t touch them. Harper Lee deserves better, and so do both her books.