Whether Lee intended it to be published or not, her novel sends a message America needs to hearby Diane Roberts / August 11, 2015 / Leave a comment
Harper Lee receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W Bush in 2007 Click here to download your FREE copy of our summer fiction special This is an updated version of a review originally published on July 16th, 2015 Harper Lee has broken our hearts. For more than half a century, Atticus Finch has been everyone’s hero, a white man who puts his reputation, even his life, on the line, defending a black man and facing down a lynch mob in the Jim Crow south. The Atticus we’ve always known valiantly tries to prove Tom Robinson never raped Mayella Ewell, angering the good white people of Maycomb, Alabama, risking everything to uphold the rule of law. He fails; Tom Robinson is killed. Still we love him for fighting the good fight. But the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s mysteriously recovered, newly published, novel, is not the legal Galahad of To Kill a Mockingbird, not a crusader for the downtrodden, not Atticus as we picture him: Gregory Peck, stern and beautiful in that immaculate linen suit as he speaks out against hatred and prejudice. This Atticus is a racist. In Go Set a Watchman, Scout Finch (these days known by her baptismal name Jean Louise) is now 26 years old and living in New York City. Home for a visit, she begins to realise that her adored father, a man she sees as an exemplar of all that is good and decent, actually believes in white supremacy. He likens “Negroes” to children and calls them “backward,” unfit to “share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.” He joins the local White Citizens’ Council to suppress the burgeoning civil rights movement. He despises the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) for giving black people ideas above their station: “The NAACP doesn’t care whether a Negro man owns or rents his land, how well he can farm, or whether or not he tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet—oh, no, all the NAACP cares about is that man’s vote.” A vote Atticus Finch doesn’t think “Negroes” are entitled to. How can it be that one of the most cherished characters in one of the most cherished novels of all time, a secular saint of American justice cited by the likes of Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty and Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, as their reason for becoming lawyers, could say to his horrified daughter, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?” Readers, nearly as appalled as Jean Louise Finch, may well ask if we really need to know this Atticus. To Kill a Mockingbird is the quintessential southern story, decanting all the big southern themes—the legacy of slavery, the loss of innocence, cruelty, conformity, unexpected grace—into a few years in the life of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the tomboyish despair of every high-toned Christian lady in Maycomb, Alabama. Mockingbird isn’t the greatest novel by a southerner. That title surely belongs to Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner’s spectacular demolition of racial difference, Civil War pieties and the whole edifice of white supremacy that ordered southern society. Mockingbird lacks the Faustian menace of another great southern novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck chooses to violate his culture’s standards of morality and see his friend Jim not as a piece of property but as a human being, declaring he’s ready to “go to hell” for it if necessary. Mockingbird cannot match the moral complexity of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, with its pained confrontation of southern history and the “Peculiar Institution” that allows a father to rape his own daughter because she is also his slave. Harper Lee read her southern writers. You can hear Huck Finn’s guileless voice in the Finch children, and detect the influence of Faulkner’s crime solving lawyer Gavin Stevens in Atticus. The inhabitants of Maycomb owe something to the chatty eccentrics of Eudora Welty’s Morgana, Mississippi, as well, and Carson McCullers didn’t miss the similarities between Scout and Frankie in The Member of the Wedding, sniffing to a cousin after Mockingbird became a hit: “Well, honey, one thing we know is that she’s been poaching on my literary preserves.” But Mockingbird was never fenced off from ordinary readers, put out of reach on the “high art” book shelf, unlike the works of Faulkner, the über Modernist, or O’Connor and McCullers, the connoisseurs of the grotesque. Mockingbird sold like crazy when it appeared in 1960 and has never stopped selling: more than 40m copies to date. In contrast to Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and others of the southern literary pantheon, Lee’s narrator is a child, but not unreliable; linear time in her novel is not in a state of collapse; characters don’t shift races or genders. Maycomb’s problem is that everyone is stuck in the station to which he or she was born: gentry, “white trash,” Negro, acting out a narrative which never allows for deviation. Published six years after the US Supreme Court outlawed segregation, five years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, and the same year as white-only lunch counter sit-ins began and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was founded, Mockingbird refuses to give into either rage or despair. The south is not fundamentally and irredeemably evil. Boo Radley is misunderstood, not sinister; Tom Robinson is innocent; Atticus is a hero; and most people are decent. Mark Twain’s radically incorruptible Huck vows to “light out for the Territory,” disappear into the Edenic wilderness where Nature might be red in tooth and claw, but he’ll be free of depraved social institutions such as class, organised religion and slavery. In Go Down, Moses, Ike McCaslin thinks the only way to atone for the sins of his white family against his black family is to abjure the realm, renounce his property and retreat to the healing bosom of the wilderness. But in Harper Lee’s slice of the south, running away isn’t an option. Everyone, even the recluse Boo, belongs to society; everyone is responsible for society, too. Atticus Finch doesn’t fall into a resigned melancholy, unlike Faulkner’s Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!, whose response to the horrors of history is to cry vainly about the south, “I don’t hate it! I don’t!” and drown himself. Atticus turns and fights. Hope lives on. Since 1964, when she gave her last interview, Lee has been an American enigma, a one-novel wonder like Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) or Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind). She’s not been a recluse like JD Salinger or a ghost like Thomas Pynchon. In 1961, she happily collected her Pulitzer Prize and in 1962, attended the première of the film based on her novel. Later in life she accepted a Medal of Freedom from President George W Bush, and a National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama. She said yes to several honorary degrees and until she became frail three or four years ago, she’d appear at the University of Alabama to shake hands with the winner of an annual high school essay contest in honour of To Kill a Mockingbird. Nevertheless, as she said to her cousin Dickie Williams, “When you’re at the top, there is only one way to go.” She never wanted to talk about her writing. When asked in the early 1960s if she planned a “Mockingbird 2” or some other novel, she’d simply say “no.” Sometimes it was “hell, no.” On one occasion she added: “I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.” Unlike her childhood friend Truman Capote, she had no desire to shine in New York café society—much as she loved New York. Capote’s 1948 bestseller Other Voices, Other Rooms, a tale of southern decadence complete with rotting plantation house, cross-dressing uncle, mad aunts, guns and dark family secrets, made him a literary star. He encouraged Lee, maintaining a close friendship with her during the 1950s and 1960s. She worked with Capote in late 1959 as his “researcher and bodyguard,” helping with his groundbreaking “nonfiction novel” about the murders of a well-off family in Holcomb, Kansas, and the two ex-convicts eventually executed for the crime. Some, notably Norman Mailer, wondered if Lee actually wrote parts of In Cold Blood and—perhaps to equalise the unlikeliness—suggested that Capote was the real author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Everybody loves literary conspiracy theories: Shakespeare didn’t really write Shakespeare, and Branwell Brontë, Emily’s brother, is the “real” author of Wuthering Heights. Which brings us to Go Set a Watchman, controversial before it ever hit print. Did Harper Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter “find” the typescript in the summer of 2014, as she has said, or was it really unearthed in 2011 when an expert from Sotheby’s examined the contents of Harper Lee’s safe deposit box? Did Harper Lee truly want this uneven, often funny, often inartful, first draft of the beloved Mockingbird to see the light of day? It’s hard to ignore the staggering amount of money involved: royalties for To Kill a Mockingbird top $63,000 a week. Conspiracy theories abound: perhaps Lee, aged 89, is too infirm to have consented in a meaningful way? Alice Lee, known around Monroeville, Alabama as “Atticus in a skirt,” died in 2014, and could no longer protect her baby sister from publishers, editors, agents and advisors intent on maximizing a huge publishing opportunity. A columnist for the New York Times pointed darkly to the “synergy” of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal getting “scoops,” including the first chapter, from the Rupert Murdoch-owned Harper Collins, which published the book. A reviewer on National Public Radio said she didn’t think Watchman was a first draft of Mockingbird after all, asserting “this troubling confusion of a novel” reads like “a failed sequel.” The New Republic did a three-part series called “The Suspicious Story Behind Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.” The publisher insists that Lee gave full consent to the book’s publication. Watchman is certainly the first draft of Mockingbird. Records kept by Lee’s agent in the late 1950s corroborate this. It reads like a first draft: rough and often angry. Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor at Lippincott, counselled the young writer to abandon the contemporary story set in the 1950s and concentrate on Scout as a child in the south of the 1930s. If there is a “secret” here, I suspect it’s that Hohoff and Lippincott thought perhaps a novel in which every white character, however charming, embodies some aspect of racism from paternalism (at best) to an irrational fear of “mongrelisation” and rails against the Supreme Court’s ruling declaring that separate is never equal, was either an offence to Yankee progressivism or out of date. In the 1930s, Faulkner exposed segregation as a vicious crime against humanity; in the 1940s and 1950s, Richard Wright and James Baldwin gave voice to the fury and pain of racism in their fiction and essays, while Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man, took on America’s myriad race myths and shot them down one by one, brilliantly, if sardonically, demanding full humanity for every American of every shade. A novel in which the supposedly wise father and the supposedly rebellious daughter both seem to feel that states’ rights should trump the human rights of African-Americans would surely have struck many readers, becoming aware of the struggle for civil rights in the south, as retrograde. In that last interview 51 years ago, Lee said she wanted to be “the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” chronicler of a way of life in small southern towns she feared was on the decline. On the one hand, she loathed publicity and swore she’d never publish anything again; yet she also clearly intended to produce more than Mockingbird. Writers are no more consistent than anyone else. In the 1970s, Lee seemed to be planning a true-crime novel called The Reverend, based on a series of sensational homicides in Alexander City, Alabama. A self-proclaimed preacher was suspected of murdering his first and second wives, his brother, and various other family members. Alice Lee would tell people, “Nelle Lee is always writing stories”—Nelle being Lee’s actual first name. The hype for Go Set a Watchman was positively epic. Bookstores from Boston to Los Angeles held celebrations the evening before the novel officially came out on 14th July. Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi (home of Faulkner), held a marathon reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, while in Monroeville, where Lee still lives, now in a care home, a local café served “Boo Burgers” and “Finch Fries.” Monroeville’s Ole Curiosities and Book Shoppe opened at midnight on 13th July to begin selling 10,000 copies of Watchman (Monroeville’s population is only 6,300) to people who’d been queueing for hours, some dressed as Atticus or Scout or other characters from the Mockingbird universe. Harper Collins, the novel’s US publisher, says the novel broke all previous records for pre-sales. On publication day, the Guardian’s website offered “Live Updates” from New York, the United Kingdom and Alabama, as if this were some natural disaster, an election or the cup final. A wily public relations firm could not have designed this “publishing event of the year” any better. But now that the noise has settled down, we can think a little harder about the novel. And Lee’s legacy. And our shock that Atticus could hold such racist attitudes. This Atticus, this first characterisation of him, is much more of a product of his time than the Atticus of Mockingbird. Consider: he would have been born in the 1880s (he’s 72 in Watchman), and grew up in an Alabama still traumatised by the Civil War and Reconstruction. He flirts with the Ku Klux Klan as a young man; joins the White Citizens’ Council as an older man; and makes a distinction between “good Negroes”—the deferential domestics, preachers and tenant farmers who call him “sir”—and “outside agitators,” civil rights activists, the NAACP, trying to destroy the “Southern Way of Life.” “The Southern Way of Life” was white folks’s genteel euphemism for apartheid. Jim Crow. Segregation. The laws that forbade blacks and whites to marry, to use the same entrance to movie theatres or eat in the same parts of a restaurant, the poll taxes and “literacy” tests that stopped black people voting, the laws that made it almost impossible for the children and grandchildren of freed slaves to be full citizens of the United States. Atticus is similar to historical figures eventually regarded as civil rights advocates: the Supreme Court justice Hugo Black of Alabama, and the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Both joined the Klan as young men; Byrd filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Black spoke against an anti-lynching law in the 1930s. Both later embraced the cause of social justice. Faulkner, who in book after book undermined every sacred tenet of white supremacy and showed how the south, despite 300 years of trying to separate black from white, derives its culture and identity from the rich mix of the two, cautioned black civil rights activists to “go slow, now” and don’t push for integration. He went on to say “if I have to make the same choice as Robert E Lee then I’ll make it,” and added that if the federal government interfered with Mississippi, he’d resist, “even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes.” One hundred and fifty years after the surrender at Appomattox, it’s still not over. Some white southerners, terrified of immigrants, terrified of social change and the astonishing fact that a black man lives in the White House, still talk about secession. The whole country still debates the Confederate battle flag—heritage or hate? After the massacre of nine worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the state legislature (finally, and not unanimously) voted to remove it from the capitol grounds. Alabama followed suit. But Mississippi continues to cling to the battle flag, incorporating it into their state banner. A new book by David Theo Goldberg, Are We All Postracial Yet? argues that, if anything, race informs American society more than ever. Our attempts at colour-blindness have only made us more aware racialists. Barack Obama did not, after all, usher in the new era when race is finally irrelevant. Race is—as it always has been—life and death. As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his searing Between the World and Me, says, “race is the child of racism, not the father.” This isn’t about “hue and hair,” it’s about power. America, a nation constantly telling itself the future is what matters, is mired in history. As Faulkner said, “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” So should we shun this lesser, this limited, Atticus Finch of Watchman, holding onto his more heroic, later-draft self? On the contrary. Lee’s rough draft brings us closer to the reality of 21st-century America than the hopeful lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack, trying to explain how the south got that way, says to her, “Not much more than 5 per cent of the south’s population ever saw a slave, much less owned one.” In 2015, the Texas Board of Education continues to deny that slavery was the main cause of the American Civil War. It was really cotton tariffs. Or states’ rights. Uncle Jack would be proud. In Watchman, Lee coolly dissects the class system Americans insist doesn’t exist: Hank, Jean Louise’s sometime boyfriend, is white but working class. He can’t afford patrician tolerance for black people, who are, he thinks, primitive and largely ineducable. You can hear the same sentiments, slightly more veiled, in conservative justifications for the killings of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Michael Brown in Ferguson, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, unarmed boys who are called “thugs,” boys taunted with “Pants up, don’t loot!” mocking the “Hands up, don’t shoot!” of the protestors. Atticus Finch condemns government intervention in the economy and what he sees as the “right” of Alabama to frustrate the dreams of anyone who happens to be a descendant of slaves; he castigates the Supreme Court for its “activism” (by which he means its decision to end American apartheid) and wishes that only certain people—you can guess what kind of people—be allowed to vote. He’d be right at home in the Tea Party. In Go Set a Watchman we see a writer struggling with her people and her history and finding no place of comfort. Whether 1957 or 2015, slavery haunts us still; the Civil War isn’t quite finished; and, much as we congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come, Atticus, speaking from the scared, entitled subconscious of the America that desperately wants to see itself as a “white man’s country,” shows us how far we have to go.