A literary achievement or outrageous exploitation? Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird sequel, Go Set A Watchman, has everyone divided...
This year’s most anticipated novel, Go Set A Watchman, is also the most controversial. Written by Pulitzer-winning To Kill A Mockingbird author, Harper Lee (now aged 89), it could either be a great literary achievement, an outrageous exploitation of a vulnerable woman orsomewhere between the two. You decide.
What’s the background?
Lee gained worldwide fame when Mockingbird was published in 1960. Narrated by tomboy heroine Scout Finch, it tells the story of her lawyer father, Atticus, defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama.
Mockingbird became one of the best-loved books of American literature and went on to star Gregory Peck in an Oscar-winning movie. Decades of fans hoped its author would write a secondnovel, perhaps even – dare they dream? – a sequel.
Why Harper Lee wouldn’t publish again
But what came next was silence. For sixty long, long years. Lee left her hometown of Monroeville and followed good friend and Breakfast At Tiffany’s author Truman Capote to New York, where she lived for some years. Over time, snippets would be heard through friends to explain her refusal to publish again: she said she valued her privacy too much and wouldn’t relish reliving the publicity and fame that she experienced with Mockingbird ‘for any amount of money’. And then, of course, there was the matter of high expectations: ‘When you’re at the top there’s only one way togo’. She also implied she didn’t have another book in her: ‘I said what I had to say.’
So how come a second book has now been ‘discovered’?
Well, actually it’s the first. Go Set A Watchman was allegedly written sixty years ago, but was packed away after an editor told Lee it wasn’t publishable. The story goes that Lee was advised to recast the book, perhaps look at the characters and see what they would have been like as children. She then rewrote the main character, Scout, as a child, and the book became To Kill A Mockingbird, the tale of justice and racism that went on to sell over 40 million copies worldwide and be translated into 40 languages. That original manuscript has now been ‘discovered’ again and is being published.
And people are worried because?
They’re asking, is Harper Lee happy to publish the book or has she been duped? Lee, now deaf and with failing eyesight after her stroke (in 2007), lives in an assisted-living facility in her hometown, where some of the rumours have generated. Locals point to the fact that it’s no coincidence this has happened after the recent death of Lee’s sister and legal protector, Alice. A complaint of ‘elder abuse’ has been filed but after investigation, it was found that she was coherent and did in fact want the book published.
Dr Wayne Flynt knows her well and visits her regularly. ‘All I know is members of the family felt this is probably not a good idea. And when they [asked Harper Lee] “Are you sure you want to do this?” five times in two days, she said “yes of course”.’
But there are some who still believe that America’s most famous one-hit wonder has been coerced into publishing (or is perhaps unaware of what’s happening), in order to benefit those who’d gain millions from a second success. Actress Mia Farrow tweeted, ‘Is someone taking advantage of our national treasure?’ And Girl With A Pearl Earring author, Tracy Chevalier, told Radio 4 that she was ‘just a little concerned that Harper Lee was pressured into this.’
So what happens now?
Well, one thing’s for sure: the Watchman juggernaut is well and truly unstoppable. Reese Witherspoon has voiced the audiobook, and the book has topped both the Amazon hardback and Kindle charts since its publication was announced. You could argue that whether the novel itself reads as a first draft or a masterpiece possibly doesn’t even matter. Fans the world over will snap it up and love it all the same.
Author and Booker judge, Erica Wagner, summed it up well when she told Radio 4: ‘Nothing will take away from the power of Mockingbird, whatever the book is like. There will be a lot of respect whenit comes out. These are characters that we love so much that we want to seewhat happens to them – so I think people will read it with all that in mind.’ It seems, whether she likes it or not, Ms Lee has another bestseller on her hands.
And the book itself? I hear there’s another controversy.
That’s right. (Spoiler alert!) Early reviews reveal that Atticus Finch, the upstanding hero of To Kill A Mockingbird, turns into a racist, bigoted old man. His daughter Scout (who’s by now dropped her nickname and called Jean Louise), is bitterly disappointed by her father.
Word has it that Finch was based on Lee’s own father, Amasa Coleman Lee, who was a believer in segregation, and only changed his views to embrace racial equality when his daughter wrote Mockingbird. Some commentators have argued that, in the 30s (when Mockingbird was based), it would have been incredibly unlikely for Atticus to hold the ‘equal rights for all, special privileges for none’ views that he expounds in court.
For millions of fans worldwide who’ve already celebrated the moral, upstanding nature of Atticus Finch, the idea that he grew into a bitter, racist bigot is going to be a tough fact to swallow. It might ‘only’ be fiction but one of literature’s great heroes has just taken a mighty tumble.