Jem has dropped dead. Scout – now Jean Louise, thank you — is all grown up and (gulp) contemplating an affair, but, worst of all, straight-backed Atticus is now an old, infirm, cranky arch-segregationist.
No word yet on whether Dill is off gossiping at fabulous parties, but are readers truly ready for these troubling revelations about the beloved characters of To Kill a Mockingbird? Or for the possibility of a somehow lesser, anticlimactic work? In the countdown to July 14, when Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second book, Go Set a Watchman, finally hits the stands, the nervous tension has risen like the mercury in an Alabama thermometer. How could any other novel measure up to the touchstone of social conscience that still occasionally, 55 years later, outsells the Bible, particularly when it gives our hero feet of Cotton Belt clay?
This second novel functions as a sequel, cast 20 years into the future from the original’s Depression-era setting, but it was written earlier. In fact, it was the first manuscript Lee submitted as an untested young scribbler in New York. Her editor saw potential in it but suggested a rewrite, an expansion of certain flashbacks with a change in voice and perspective, resulting in Mockingbird, the ultimate debut novel which became a primer of the civil rights movement while its author ascended to the status of secular saint. The sphinx-like Lee, overwhelmed by the attention, went into semi-reclusion. In one of her rare-as-hens’-teeth interviews, Lee explained, “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” With Watchman, we are essentially getting the rough draft, the dress rehearsal, the raw juvenilia. Because the art often lies in the revision, most mature artists wince at the prospect of trotting out their unpolished work, and Lee always has maintained that she did not plan to publish another book.
The discovery of this manuscript in some papers stored in a bank, and the timing of its release, have raised uncomfortable questions and contradictory explanations. A Sotheby’s expert reportedly was the first to find it in 2011. Lee’s sensible sister, a lawyer described as “Atticus in a skirt,” was alive then and overseeing the Mockingbird legacy, and no one pushed for publication. Now that this guardian has died, Lee’s lawyer is credited with unearthing Watchman and presenting it to a publishing community that always has hungered for more from Lee. The author, 89 and reportedly impaired in her vision and hearing, receives care in a nursing home. So allegations of elder abuse and manipulation have swirled around this event, without slowing its momentum. HarperCollins has ordered a first printing of two million copies for the book, which makes it the most preordered book in the house’s history, and on amazon, Watchman ranks as the most preordered book since Harry Potter in 2007. The publisher did not release the customary advance copies for reviewers but teasingly proffered the first chapter.
That Atticus has morphed into Archie Bunker at his most dyspeptic has sent Southern progressives reeling. The enduring power of Mockingbird lies in its empathy and idealism, its clear delineation of good and evil in that sun-struck atmosphere of mule-pulled “Hoover carts” and ladies “who were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” Readers who are animated by social justice root for Atticus and yearn to believe themselves brave enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him as he fends off a lynch mob, just as they want to believe that a child’s sweet voice could be the force that ultimately halts that bloodthirsty group. In Watchman, though, Atticus fumes: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Oh, the heartbreak and nausea inflicted by those words. And there is more, of course. He condemns the NAACP as “troublemakers” and says African-Americans are too “backward to “share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.” If Jean Louise has not completely lost her innocence by the end of Mockingbird, she certainly will now, as have we who live in a world where African-American men still perish in police custody, and where bigoted relatives can ruin a Sunday supper with rants about President Obama. “What this news does is put Atticus in the same category for me as my grandfather: He was a racist, but he was also a great man who did good for many people, black and white,” says Bryan Sorohan, a social activist and a professor at Brenau University. “He’s a part of me, flaws and all, and I wouldn’t change that even if I could. But, in that respect, as well as probably others, he was wrong and his wrongness undoubtedly did harm. There are no pure heroes, and this book may be a catalyst for confronting that fact. It will be instructive to see who is smug or happy about this turn of events.”
Watchman no doubt will prove instructive in other ways, as well, especially on the craft of writing, of transforming an ambitious but apparently flawed novel into a masterpiece. Here is a chance to glimpse Harper Lee’s formidable, acrobatic mind at work – and an opportunity for all writers to regard their editors with renewed respect. However, we also run the risk of inserting the author into her own metaphor. Dragging shy Boo Radley into the spotlight, even as a hero who saved two motherless children, would have been like the “sin” of killing a mockingbird, she wrote. It might have been best to leave Lee to sing the tune of her choice, in the privacy of her own garden.