Why To Kill a Mockingbird is overrated
Mockingbird’s ‘sequel’ Go Set a Watchman was written first so it might be truer to Harper Lee’s original vision
Friday 6 February 2015 07.00 GMT
On Tuesday, I came out of a meeting to find a barrage of messages with the news that Harper Lee has written a sequel to her classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird and will be publishing it this summer. To say that I was startled would be putting it mildly; it was simply astonishing news. The novel’s many fans had long inured themselves to Lee’s seemingly irreversible decision not to write another novel. Her pen simply “froze”, Lee once declared, after the maelstrom of publicity and praise Mockingbird received, and she firmly rejected her loving, demanding audience’s repeated efforts to interview her or persuade her to write something more.
Then I saw the title of the “new” novel and realised that nothing had changed: Lee has not suddenly caved in to our desires and produced a sequel toMockingbird at the age of 88. Scholars have long known of an earlier draft ofMockingbird called Go Set a Watchman (and at least one other title, if not another draft, called Atticus), and it is this book that will be published in the summer.
The reason the word “sequel” has been bandied about is that Go Set a Watchmanwas drafted from the perspective of Scout as an adult in the 1950s, visiting Atticus back home in Maycomb, and remembering her childhood during the Depression. Lee was advised by an editor to redraft the novel from the child Scout’s point of view, cutting the later plot material and turning what had been flashbacks into the novel itself. This earlier draft will now be published; Lee’s agent reports that Lee told him it is not a sequel, but “the parent to Mockingbird”.
The question some have been asking is why the decision has been taken to publish this draft now. The press release from William Heinemann (Mockingbird’s original UK publisher), now an imprint of Penguin Random House, includes a statement from Lee saying that she had presumed the earlier draft lost, but that her lawyer “and dear friend” Tonja Carter found it among some papers this autumn. Lee was “surprised and delighted” by the find, said the statement, but uncertain of whether the draft deserved publication. Given that 50 years ago it was judged unready for publication, this is not an entirely unreasonable concern; friends advised her to publish, leaving Lee “humbled and amazed that this will be published after all these years”. The timing has troubled many observers: Lee’s sister Alice, her fierce defender and lawyer, died last autumn at the age of 103, while Lee herself has been reported to be deaf and blind, and willing to “sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence”, her sister wrote a few years ago. That the manuscript was purportedly “found” after Alice’s death has raised some eyebrows, but perhaps it was located because Alice died. We can only hope this is the case, and that Lee fully understands and concurs with the decisions that are being taken.
The question for those of us who work with American literature is whether any of this matters beyond the ethical concerns about Lee’s competency, and the media hoopla the news has already inspired. The truth, which is likely to bring much opprobrium down on my head, is that Mockingbird is not necessarily as widely admired among scholars of US literature as it is among its fans. I once enraged an audience of very nice book-lovers at the Cheltenham literary festival by suggesting that Mockingbird was just the teensiest bit overrated. There are many reasons for this assessment, not least the feeling that Atticus Finch’s famous moral rectitude is, in point of fact, disturbingly flexible. He tells Scout: “Before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” That’s all well and good, and a fine American sentiment that goes at least back to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But part of Mark Twain’s radical move in that novel is to make his hero an illiterate backwoods boy; Lee’s hero is a virtuous, middle-class white man, full ofnoblesse oblige to the black people he defends (who revere him for it), but who doesn’t bat an eyelid at the common knowledge that the illiterate, white-trash Mayella Ewell is regularly raped and beaten by her father. Not only does this fact not discernibly trouble Atticus’s conscience, he appears to consider Mayella untrustworthy because she has been repeatedly raped by her father. The novel concurs: Mayella is lying, and it’s part of her unsavoury character that she keeps getting raped by her father, which has apparently made her sex-starved for any other man (huh?), which is why she entraps poor Tom Robinson. Ultimately the Ewells are irredeemable, and the novel leaves them to their dirty, nasty, backwoods fate. I’m not a big fan of novels driven by moral teachings to begin with, but if I’m going to read a moralistic novel I’d like its moral system to be a bit more robust than that.
But it’s because of Mockingbird’s rather inchoate moral system that I’m intrigued to read the adult Go Set a Watchman. It will be interesting indeed to see what fate Lee had in store for Atticus and Scout in the deep south of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, and whether this novel was able to view Atticus, and the race and class relations that are Mockingbird’s subject, with more clarity and less bias. Many readers may be disappointed that Go Set a Watchman is not a “true” sequel, written by Lee after the fact to bring us up to date. I prefer this turn of events, however: from one perspective this is a “truer” account of Lee’s own initial vision of the characters who populate this widely beloved book. Now we may learn what they are really made of.