On the pub date of Harper Lee’s “new” novel, ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ a devoted reader revisits the literary classic, to find what, if anything, has changed since its publication 54 years ago.
Today marks the publication of Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, the most preordered book in HarperCollins’s history. Prior to the release, I’ve been eager to reread To Kill a Mockingbird to see how the original holds up, and then continue the story in Go Set a Watchman. Should I? That’s a hard question.
For those of us fascinated by the writing process, we have a rare chance to glimpse the difference between a submitted draft and a final, polished masterpiece. Do I dare let Lee’s early work change the way I see her at her best, when she’d worked so closely with a patient, wise editor like Tay Hohoff? Or do I perform a kind of reader’s math on the two, trying to multiply out the writer behind the words?
It’s no overstatement to say that Lee’s debut novel made me want to be a writer. I love the movie version as much as the book, one of those very rare occasions when a film is as good as the original. Mockingbird stays on my desk alongside the other books that inspire me, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones among them.
But it has been 50 years since Mockingbird won almost universal praise. The setting is the Jim Crow South, when segregation was alive and well, and Black people didn’t have the legal right to vote or send their children to schools White children attended, including most universities (including the university where I work, Duke). They faced violence daily—beatings, fire-bombings, and murder. The story is set in the years between 1933 and 1935, when dozens of reported lynchings occurred (not all of them south of the Mason-Dixon line).
In many important ways, America is a very different place. Black people hold positions of power and wealth—including, of course, the No. 1 spot in the White House. South Carolina has finally retired the Confederate flag flown proudly as a brutal symbol of opposition to integration in 1961. But it took the slaying of nine Black worshippers in a historic Charleston AME church by a young White supremacist to make that happen—activists had been pleading for the flag’s removal for years, but were met by fierce opposition. Barack Obama’s electoral wins have unleashed a Pandora’s box of hatred, this church massacre only the latest vicious act. There are still sleepy towns like Lee’s Maycomb, though in my state of North Carolina, the terrifying Boo Radley seems quaint compared with the contemporary monsters of meth labs and easy access to heroin and Oxycontin.
The author has always been a mystery. Born in Monroeville, Alabama, the model for the fictional Maycomb, Lee was as famous for publishing Mockingbird in 1960 as she was for not publishing most of what she wrote following its stunning success. Her older sister Alice, a lawyer, was, by all accounts, fiercely protective of Harper, known as Nelle, guarding the author’s privacy and legacy, especially after the 2007 stroke that left Nelle wheelchair-bound and mostly blind and deaf. (Nelle once called Alice “Atticus with pants” while describing herself as more Boo Radley than Scout.)
Alice was likely as concerned about their father’s legacy, since Atticus is so clearly based on him. The Mockingbird Atticus—a man ahead of his time—is a more embraceable character than the realistic, racist Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, a White man who believed that Blacks were inferior, as many White people did at that time.
Alice died in 2014, leaving a legal protégé, Tonja B. Carter, in charge of Nelle’s affairs. No sooner did Alice pass than Carter dropped a bombshell—she’d discovered the new novel rolled in a Mockingbird typescript. The New York Times has questioned her account, reporting that Sotheby’s evaluated Lee’s papers, including the new novel, in 2011, while Alice was still alive. At that time, no publication was announced, leading skeptics to wonder if Nelle was capable of releasing Watchman for publication without her sister’s oversight.
We may never know how much ego—or the effects of ill health—weighed into Nelle’s decision to publish Watchman. I suspect it may never have been published had Nelle, now 89, predeceased her sister. At the same time, perhaps Nelle, who has been described by those who’ve recently met her as sharp, had waited a long time to let the world see a book she still passionately believes in. And indeed, she is said to be thrilled with it. (Incidentally, a state investigation concluded in April found no evidence of abuse or neglect.)
But the story has become more tangled as reviewers have described Watchman’s contents (early birds read the first chapter at the Guardian and The Wall Street Journal). Lee wrote Watchman first, the adult Scout’s account of her return from New York to Maycomb at the beginning of the civil-rights movement. The publishing house J. B. Lippincott bought Watchman in 1957, and asked her to rewrite the book as a coming-of-age story. We know that Nelle was open to being edited—indeed she had a very collaborative relationship with her editor, Tay Hohoff, and the book was arguably the better for it (and Nelle, the richer for it): To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer and quickly became an American classic. So there is an argument to be made that she didn’t want it to be published.
As I sank into Mockingbird, Lee’s language itself seems like a whisper from a distant time, expansive, musical and deeply humorous compared to our truncated tweets and texts. Speaking personally, I’m now a 50-something White mother and professor, no longer the awkward teen who devoured Mockingbird curled on a floral bedspread as I nibbled Lorna Doones. Rereading it now, I realized that so much of what I loved when I first read Mockingbird had to do with my own family. Like Scout, I hated dresses and spent long summer afternoons playing Capture the Flag with a pack of kids (albeit in the Chicago suburbs). I knew my older brother was no Jem, yet I fantasized about how he might protect me in the dark of the Halloween woods.
My father was a middle manager, not a small-town lawyer. But I saw in him the moral qualities of the Atticus of Mockingbird, at least until I was a teen. I imagined that he too would stand up for the downtrodden. After all, my father once welcomed a Black colleague and his wife to our home to have dinner in our fiercely segregated neighborhood, an act that even as a child I recognized as daring.
During the 1972 presidential campaign, my parents supported Senator George McGovern over President Richard Nixon, earning me exactly zero friends in my viciously cliquey junior high. I even wondered if my dad could pick off a rabid dog with his old hunting rifle, though he’d long ago reversed the trigger to disable the gun.
When Lee describes the expectant crowd come to watch Tom Robinson’s trail, her writing is a marvel:
There was no room at the public hitching rail for another animal, mules and wagons were parked under every available tree. The courthouse square was covered in picnic parties sitting on newspapers, washing down biscuit and syrup with warm milk from fruit jars. Some people were gnawing on cold chicken and cold fried pork chops. The more affluent chased their food with drugstore Coca-Cola in bulb-shaped soda glasses. Greasy-faced children popped-the-whip through the crowd, and babies lunched at their mother’s breasts. In a far corner of the square, the Negroes sat quietly in the sun, dining on sardines, crackers and the more vivid flavors of Nehi Cola.
In truth, it took me all of ten seconds to confirm that the book has lost none of its power. Any great work of art lasts because it speaks beyond a single generation. Yet what each generation gets from that art changes, and that’s certainly true of Mockingbird.
As others have pointed out, there are no crusaders in Maycomb. Far from being a weakness in the book, I see it as a strength. I believed in heroes as a child, but as an adult, I know that even the best among us are complicated. In Mockingbird, complications are everywhere.
Town drunk and miscegenist Dolphus Raymond aids the boy Dill when the hatred spewed against the defendant Robinson in the courtroom becomes too much. In an artful twist, the man Scout considers “evil” since he has mixed-race children reveals that his soda bottle contains no hard liquor. When Scout asks him why he admitted to them his trickery, his answer is direct. “Because you’re children and you can understand it.”
Maycomb society is full of trickery at all levels, good and bad.
It’s a neighbor who tells Jem that even though the judge who presides over Robinson’s trial is no integrationist, he appointed Atticus because he believed in the defendant’s innocence. No one will hire Robinson’s wife, Helen, until a local White farmer steps up, then becomes the family’s staunch defender.
Some readers have faulted Lee for not crusading more directly against the injustice so evident in the story of a Black man wrongly convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. Most of Maycomb is content with the status quo, so long as they can continue their routines of church, work and indulging in the occasional scandal (like Mrs. Dubose’s quiet morphine addiction).
To me, that’s one of the most durable parts of Mockingbird. To this day, we send African-American men to death row for things they didn’t do. In 2014 in North Carolina, two Black half-brothers, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, were exonerated after spending a combined three decades in prison, including on death row, for a murder they didn’t commit. The death penalty remains clearly racist and too often applied to defendants who are poor and Black.
Yet in the Supreme Court, we still have justices, including Antonin Scalia, who ignore overwhelming evidence of the death penalty’s injustice. It’s worth noting that Scalia cited the McCollum case in 1994 as an example of a convict who should die.
One of the biggest differences I found in my rereading of Mockingbird was my reaction to the man at its center, Atticus. It’s with Atticus that Watchman has so far caused the greatest controversy. Modeled on Lee’s father and so memorably played by Gregory Peck, Atticus is the closest thing to a hero in Mockingbird. But according to early reviews, he is more villain than savior to the adult Scout, with views just as racist in their way as the white-trash farmer who tries to murder Jem and Scout.
As an adult reader, I found Atticus frail as well as almost fatally blind to the firm structure of violence that surrounds his little family. Atticus believes in the fundamental goodness of people, that people will, if they’re able to see things from the perspective of others, begin to understand and feel a common bond. He urges his children to stand for a moment in the shoes of poor Walter Cunningham, the boy who drowns his meal in cane syrup, before passing judgment.
But the demons who live in Maycomb aren’t tamed so easily. The attack on Jem and Scout that is Mockingbird’s thrilling climax demonstrates to Atticus how wrong he was, how deluded, almost at the cost of the people dearest to him. Maycomb’s racism—still so present in the United States, and so intractable—is not something that can be vanquished by fellow feeling alone. It’s not something that responds to logic or even, reliably, the law. It’s enormous, yet largely invisible (at least to White people), an edifice that continues to hold and divide us.
Atticus’s prissy, gossipy sister Aunt Alexandra is actually the one who puts into words the dangers the Finch children face, despite her brother’s assurances that all’s well. The sister’s a snob and a racist, hosting dainty teas while a lynch mob gathers for Robinson. But a snob is capable of perceiving society’s structure much more clearly than a do-gooder like Atticus. In wonderful, creepy foreshadowing, Scout seems to perceive this as well, musing near the end of the book, “Boo Radley was the least of our fears.”
So was Atticus a secret racist all along, as some have claimed who’ve read Watchman? Well, yes and no. No, because the two novels have evolved into different books, even though one was a draft of the other. The author transformed To Kill a Mockingbird so profoundly from what she originally submitted to Lippincott, that the intent in each work has changed, and the connection has, if not been lost, than weakened. The character “Atticus” in Mockingbird is a child’s construct. Watchman Atticus is the creation of a lively, opinionated young woman coming to terms with the harsh realities of her hometown. And it’s rather naïve of especially White readers to decry “racist” Atticus when the base fact of life in those times practically required a White man of his standing to support the structures around him. Black people were ruled by these structures, but so were White people. That doesn’t mean that people were forced to be racist—they were raised racist, they were taught racism, and to challenge that system was not only dangerous – it was unthinkable. The Klan is a convenient villain—but less vilified and much more powerful were the White Councils, white banks and businesses, white sheriffs and mayors and churches, all not only supporters of segregation but also true believers and defenders of the status quo.
Even do-gooders like Mockingbird Atticus didn’t necessarily want their daughters marrying Black men. Racism is a deep and persistent vein in American society and it’s to Lee’s credit that she has made it her life’s theme as a writer. She makes us care about racists like Walter Cunningham because we should, even as we can decry their violence. We should also care and deeply about racist Atticus, because even in the midst of his racism he, like all of us, is capable of great good. I don’t think you have to be pure to do the right thing, as Atticus did in Mockingbird. If change was only the work of the pure, we’d still be clubbing each other over raw game in the darkness of the caves.
My hope it that, with Watchman’s release, readers will come to the original either fresh or as eager returnees, with their own questions. I hope Watchman will be, if not as good, then at least as compelling. But as we crack open the book after today’s release, I find myself more grateful than ever that Mockingbird exists. Most editors don’t take this kind of time with debut novels anymore (and according to reports left Watchman virtually untouched). Lee has given us much to think and care about: not only where we’ve come from but where we’re going. And that, in the end, is the miracle of any good book.
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