SEPTEMBER 2, 2015
The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, will be mailed to subscribing LARB members in September. Click here to get your subscription today.
WHEN NELLE HARPER Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird on July 11, 1960, she simply hoped the novel would receive a “quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers.”
For over two years, the first-time author had labored on a manuscript, revising and editing until what was left was vastly different from the story she had begun. Unsure of the value of the final draft, she kept her expectations low. She mostly wished for some small form of critical recognition that might encourage her to continue writing, but Lee and her editors remained pragmatically pessimistic about the book’s chances.
Instead of fizzling into obscurity the book set the literary world on fire: it opened to near universal acclaim and was soon on multiple best-seller lists. Less than a year later, Harper Lee had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and optioned her novel to Robert Mulligan and Alan J. Pakula, who turned it into an award-winning Hollywood blockbuster in its own right. Since the day it was published, To Kill a Mockingbird has never been out of print, and in 1999, readers of the Library Journal voted it “Best Novel of the 20th Century.”
Uncertain and insecure, Harper Lee found instant fame and success far more frightening than failure. Negotiating fans, reporters, and Hollywood celebrities terrified her. Soon after the movie’s premiere, she turned away from her own work and began assisting her friend Truman Capote with his new book, In Cold Blood. By the 1965 release of Capote’s work, she essentially stopped giving interviews; she would confide in close friends that she abhorred talking about the success of her novel. As early as the late-1960s, her public appearances grew increasingly rare as she retreated back into comfortable obscurity.
Harper Lee also dropped off the literary world’s radar. She never published another novel after Mockingbird, appearing in print only a handful of times with short pieces in venues like McCall’s, Vogue, and O: The Oprah Magazine. Though she was supposedly working on several book-length projects — a sequel to Mockingbird and a novel about a serial killer in Alabama were mentioned by close friends as drafting exercises — she either never finished them or didn’t consider the final versions worthy of publication.
Perhaps that’s why it seemed almost improbable when her publisher, HarperCollins, released the stunning announcement on February 3, 2015 that Lee’s long-time friend and lawyer, Tonja Brooks Carter, had discovered a never-before seen manuscript of a new novel, Go Set a Watchman, that would be published (with the author’s full blessing) in mid-July.
Until that moment, American readers had assumed that Mockingbird would be their only glimpse at the genius of Lee’s fiction. Rather than distancing herself from her readers, Lee’s absence actually worked to further entrench her and Mockingbird into the collective American consciousness. The novel had achieved a kind of mythic status shared only by Gone with the Wind, another novel whose fans seemingly multiplied the longer they went without new material.
In fact, Mockingbird’s success shares a number of important similarities with Gone with the Wind’s popularity. Like Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Mockingbird took as its subject a dreamily romantic pastoral vision of southern culture; both books would make its young authors instant celebrities, and the movie versions of both would eventually eclipse their literary parents altogether. However, more than Mitchell, Lee was able to appeal to both popular and critical audiences. Reviewers praised Lee’s unique voice, and the American public created a hero of Atticus Finch, the young narrator’s father, who became a symbol of American morality for defending a wrongly-accused black man, Tom Robinson, of raping a white woman.
It helped that the film version of the novel cast Gregory Peck as Atticus. The middle-aged actor played the lawyer-hero with a zealous hyper-sincerity, looking in the movie suspiciously like Clark Kent, his spectacled visage framed by an oily mop of black hair. He might as well have been Superman standing up for truth and justice as he spoke in whispered urgency to his jury (and by extension American audiences), “In the name of God, do your Duty!”
Part of Peck’s appeal as the mythic Atticus-Superman was his charge to white, liberal intellectuals of the South — a message especially relevant to 1960s audiences, who were aware of the tumult of the time; who saw daily the bloody evidence of their lack of progress on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama or Greensboro, North Carolina. Atticus was speaking through the screen to white American progressives, begging them to invest themselves in the fight for racial equality and enfranchisement; he encouraged them to change something in themselves, to be better.
Consequently, the character of Atticus Finch morphed from Lee’s fictional father into an early version of the now familiar mythic white savior-reformer, who, despite the odds, takes up the hard but necessary burden of agitating on behalf of his African-American brother. The trope was a safe one, free from the messy controversy of often violent marches and sit-ins; Atticus’ tepid appeal to equality felt courageous and heroic, even though he ultimately fails in his defense of Tom Robinson, who is unceremoniously killed while trying to escape from police custody. Over the last four decades, as Lee remained painfully absent from public discourse, the Atticus myth would continue to grow; it would be reimagined, revisited, and celebrated in films like Mississippi Burning and The Help.
And yet, the movie version of Atticus Finch, the one emblazoned in our cultural memory, as the southern white superhero defender of equality isn’t exactly the Atticus Finch Harper Lee wrote about in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Atticus Finch deified by American culture is a decidedly Hollywood invention; the Atticus in the novel is a different character altogether.
Author of the forthcoming Reconstructing Violence: The Southern Rape Complex in Film and Literature, University of Mississippi professor Deborah Barker argues that Lee’s Atticus is “a good but flawed man who tries to live by a motto that he never fully understands.” He is not Peck’s zealot, but instead sedately dispassionate, reserved, logical, unflappable. He takes Tom Robinson’s case because he knows it is a losing one; he defends a man he knows is falsely accused because to do so invests him with professional, personal, and cultural capital.
Unlike the mythic movie version, the novel’s Atticus has little faith in the all white Maycomb’s jury and knows Robinson will lose the trial. Lee’s Atticus tells his son Jem of these facts with the cold distance of a man announcing the time to a stranger: “They [convicted Tom Robinson]. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it — seems only children weep. Good night.”
While the movie makes him into a superhero, Lee’s Atticus instead reveals what Barker calls the “limits of progressive tolerance, for which, ironically, the film and novel have [both] been praised.” And yet, despite the novel’s perennial appearance on high school and summer reading lists, few critically engage with Lee’s Atticus, preferring instead the symbolic-savior-Atticus manufactured by Hollywood. It is this latter version of her hero that has kept Harper Lee’s seemingly unkillable Mockingbird alive and well. In fact, Atticus’ appeal has only strengthened with each passing year as he continues to embody a powerful myth that speaks soothing truisms about white authorship in the Civil Rights Movement.
Investments in both the novel and the figure of Atticus were first and foremost on the minds of fans and scholars when Lee’s publisher announced the release date for Watchman; if instant euphoria reigned supreme on February 3rd, that fervor soon soured into bitter controversy a day later when troubling questions arose: Why now? Why had Harper Lee changed her mind about publishing another novel? What exactly was Go Set a Watchman, and how would it contribute to or threaten the public’s investment in Mockingbird? Little information was released to the public beyond the barest of plot points. The novel would supposedly be set almost twenty years after the events of Mockingbird as an adult Scout travels to Maycomb to visit her father.
With scant details, conspiracy theories about the timing of Watchman’s publication littered social media and newspapers. The more outspoken voices questioned Lee’s consent in the matter, wondering just how much the author understood about the release of her new book. HarperCollins seemed to be moving awfully quickly, and many worried they were simply attempting to take advantage of an 88-year old woman who was functionally deaf and partially blind. They were especially concerned because her sister and fiercest advocate, Alice Lee, had died only a few months before the announcement.
Worse still were seemingly synchronous reports that Lee would essentially sign anything put in front of her, as long as Carter was the one presenting it. Allegations surfaced as it became clear Harper Lee clearly felt most comfortable living a quiet, secluded life — she famously explained to Oprah Winfrey that she was more like the novel’s timid Boo Radley than the brash tomboy Scout. Was an aging author being exploited by a shady entourage of hangers-on? The question of Lee’s consent in the book’s publication became so troubling that authorities in Alabama felt compelled to interview the author on charges of elder abuse. They later closed the case, citing insufficient evidence.
Upon further examination, it became clear that the new novel was not especially “new” at all. The existence of a manuscript titled Go Set a Watchman was verified as early as 1957, and there was no doubt that it was thoroughly vetted by Lee’s early editors at Lippincott. However, HarperCollins suggested that Carter simply stumbled across the manuscript, a story viewed with suspicion, especially because Justin Caldwell, a rare books expert from Sotheby’s who came to Monroeville, Alabama in 2011 to look through Lee’s works, publically challenged it. He claimed Carter was, indeed, with him in October of that year when he discovered Watchman. Recently, Tonja Carter distanced herself from her original claim that she “found” the manuscript early in 2015 and now suggests that she was present when Caldwell found the original manuscript — though it took a re-rediscovery of it to reveal its value.
The shifting facts and improbability of these stories have made many rightly skeptical of the timing of Watchman’s release. If there was knowledge of this draft as far back as 1957 and as recently as 2011, why was HarperCollins deciding to publish it now, in July of 2015, almost 55 years to the day after Mockingbird was released? Was the release of this “new” novel just a brazen attempt by the publisher to cash in on Harper Lee’s persistent fame? Was the aging author being exploited by greedy lawyers and agents?
Even now, few questions have been answered fully or satisfactorily, much to the chagrin of a reading public still madly in love with the characters and world of Mockingbird. The publication of Go Set A Watchman went on as scheduled, and on July 14, 2015, the world finally got another chance to explore the lives of their favorite characters: Scout, Jem, Dill, and of course, Atticus Finch.
On the Friday before the book’s release, the Wall Street Journal leaked the first chapter. Within hours, Harper Lee had fallen from her role as American treasure to the George R.R. Martin of Mockingbird fan fiction: in short order, she killed Jem off, set her tomboy Scout up with a boorish love interest, and transformed Atticus Finch — Scout’s stalwart symbol of courage and honor in Mockingbird — into a virulent segregationist. Just as in 1960, the response from book critics and fans was unified. This time, however, it coalesced into a shared mixture of horror and disgust.
Fans of Mockingbird cried foul; their mythology had been wounded, perhaps mortally, by the new novel. But the controversy only made Watchman that much more compelling. Surely Lee’s editors, agents, and publishers must have known the kind of response they would get from the public once the book was released. Doubtless, they also knew that a novel full of bombshells would invariably make millions of dollars, for Go Set a Watchman’s initial fame rested squarely on its relationship to To Kill A Mockingbird, and how the two should (or should not) be read in dialogue. As controversy was its highest form of capital Lee’s novel skyrocketed to every best-seller list in the nation. A week after its release, Watchman had sold 1.1 million copies worldwide.
Many responded by mounting a counter-attack: the book’s prose, they argued, was unreadable, talky, inherently un-dramatic, and unsatisfying. Harper Lee probably didn’t even want this novel published in the first place; she had been exploited by malicious, carpetbagging outsiders (never mind that Carter was a long-time friend and confidant). Critics weren’t much more favorable; they saw the book as a poor, early draft of a novel that needed much editing to find its voice, and its shameful exposure to the public as an unfortunate blight on Harper Lee’s heretofore stellar literary reputation. Summing up the critical consensus, Randall Kennedy’s review for The New York Times rhetorically asked, “Would it have been better for this earlier novel to have remained unpublished?”
And yet, beyond the controversy of authorship, the more troubling anxiety lurked just beneath public reaction: what to do with Atticus Finch, Lee’s enduring, outsized hero? After all, Watchman’s Atticus was not the Peck-Superman, the one American audiences had adored and set as arbiter of absolute good: in fact, Watchman’s Atticus has more in common with George Wallace than Thurgood Marshall.
In the South, a region in which parents routinely name their children after the fictional father, the outcry was even more pronounced. There was a sense of disappointment, betrayal even, in Lee’s perceived attack on southern culture; specifically on the myth of the white-savior as the crux of the Civil Rights Movement. Atticus could no longer be the scaffolding on which they built their narratives of relevancy.
Readers felt the same confusion and anger at Atticus that Scout feels in Watchman when she spies on her father (from the same balcony she saw him defend Robinson as a child) as he introduces a race-baiting hack to speak to the white citizen’s council. Minutes later, the twenty-six year old woman stumbles about in a daze, her emotional life overcome by betrayal, thinking to herself that “the one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her […] publically, grossly, and shamelessly.” Clearly, Mockingbird fans could sympathize with her disillusionment.
However, if Scout and Lee’s readers shared a similar frustration and outrage in the beginning of the book, the difference was that by the end of the novel Scout finally comes to terms with her naïve misreading of Atticus as a moral paragon. Harper Lee’s fans, however, refused to follow the young woman’s lead. Scout’s shock at Atticus’ actions is mitigated by her status as his daughter — her disillusionment is part of the end of that inevitable process in which children learn that the adults they once worshipped are people — people who sometimes commit tremendous errors in judgment. But there was no assuaging public disgust over what had become of their hero: their investment in Atticus was too big to fail.
For sure, readers felt betrayed — not by Atticus, but by Lee herself. Many tried to grapple with what they saw as the central question of the novel, which was not, “How do the realities we learn about our parents as we age affect our childhood fantasies of them?” but instead, “How do we forgive Harper Lee for ruining our Atticus?”
But Lee was doing something different with Watchman that, even now, few appreciate. Lost in the cacophony of disappointment over the new novel’s portrayal of Atticus is this fearful symmetry of Lee’s renewed relevance. In 1960, during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, when white America needed a voice to help articulate fundamental truths about disenfranchisement and inequality, it was Harper Lee who spoke loudest and most clearly. And now, in 2015, an era of white self-congratulation; in a time when we celebrate the victorious dawning of a new, post-racial age, even while black bodies pile up at the hands of those charged with serving and protecting them; in a context in which the confederate flag and myths of southern exceptionalism still get debated as though they haven’t already been discredited decades ago; in a time when we are still fighting the fight for equal rights for minorities and women — we once again hear Lee’s insistent voice speaking directly and poignantly to white America.
Perhaps the most fitting result of all the controversy over Watchman is that Harper Lee is back where she belongs, prompting a painful but needed national conversation. It is Lee, who, for a second time, exposed the meandering discourses of equality and integration as empty rhetoric, valued only insomuch as they soothe white consciences, even when they obscure fundamental truths about racial progress.
The rumors surrounding Watchman’s publication suggest that Lee was exploited and manipulated into releasing a work she never intended to. That’s certainly a possibility, but then again, maybe Harper Lee knew exactly what she was doing with the release of her novel. Isn’t it possible she meant the statement she released days after the initial announcement, when she boldly declared, “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to ‘Watchman,’” a proclamation that feels almost prophetic weeks after its release? After all, Lee has always been famous for her commitment to staying current with world news. She reads voraciously and is described by friends as not just aware of political and social trends, but highly opinionated on them.
Regardless, whether Lee knew it or not, her long-forgotten manuscript has suddenly become surprisingly relevant. It was the perfect cure for white southerners’ obsession with the apocryphal Atticus-myth, an encouragement not to abandon that first novel, but to go back and actually re-read it. Maybe Harper Lee felt this historical moment was the perfect time to show the public that their investment in Atticus Finch had gone bankrupt years ago. Maybe Harper Lee knew she must be the one to destroy her otherwise unkillable Mockingbird, if only to force her readers finally to examine the fantasy they had made of it.
In the end, it was Go Set A Watchman and not Mockingbird that experienced Lee’s wish for a “quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers,” but its usefulness lies in its push toward self-examination and reflexivity. It teaches the same lessons Mockingbird privileges: examine your perspective; be critical of your investments; be wary of the fantasies you dream and how far they take you from the truth. Lee’s new book forces her fans to come to terms with their own naiveté — for, if white culture once owned Atticus Finch as the best of who they could become, they now have to own the legacy of who he became.
Author of Understanding Sam Shepard and editor of the forthcoming New Approaches to Gone with the Wind, Andy Crank is an assistant professor of American literature and culture at the University of Alabama.