Full disclosure: I’m a lifelong admirer of Harper Lee. My book Terrapin was inspired, in part, by her storytelling in To Kill A Mockingbird. We corresponded in the 1990s. None of this makes me an expert on Harper Lee or her forthcoming book (a story about an adult Scout returning to Maycomb), nor is my personal respect an argument for canonization. Like all of us, she surely has her flaws and weaknesses, but what I am reading leads me to believe that, in the evening of her life, she is being treated as a sensation and a commodity.
Is Harper Lee, at 88, truly making decisions about this newly discovered manuscript, Go Set A Watchman? If not, are the people making these decisions doing so with her previously expressed wishes and best interests front and center? We aren’t supposed to judge hearts, and I certainly don’t know the motives of the people who are driving this project, but we know there are people who will do anything for money, power, and notoriety.
To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1962. Millions of copies were sold in the first year, and many millions more since. Harper Lee’s publisher wanted her to write more stories, but no new books appeared in 1970, 1980, 1990, or 2000. If she had an almost-ready book on the shelf, why didn’t she, her editor, and publisher turn it into another bestseller? Isn’t this decision to publish a sequel to Mockingbird—though Watchman is said to have been written before Mockingbird—inconsistent with what Harper Lee has said for decades? Why has all of this happened after her beloved sister and advocate died? To what extent can the ostensible author of Go Set A Watchman be involved in the editorial process for this book?
It’s common for heirs, protégés, and admirers to publish the work of deceased authors (Christopher Tolkien being a prominent example) but Harper Lee is still living. Unfortunately, an attitude that has gained a lot of traction in our modern culture is if there’s a buck to be made and if it isn’t illegal, then why not do it? Plenty of collegiate athletic programs operate on this principle, make a lot of money in so doing, and rarely incur the disapprobation of their fans as long as they keep winning.
Could this really be a “lost” manuscript? I can say that I’ve never forgotten a story I’ve written. Too much time, effort, and—mostly—self-investment goes into writing a story to forget, or lose, it. Scenes in unpublished stories I’ve written were incorporated into other published stories, or were edited out because they were weak, something that makes publishing such unpublished stories problematical. From some of the things I’ve read, this may have been what happened to Go Set A Watchman.
Having said this, if Harper Lee wants to see this story published, whether the quality is good, bad, or mediocre isn’t anyone’s business but hers.
This new story has brought the skeptics and critics out of the woodwork, with some saying that Harper Lee didn’t really write To Kill A Mockingbird, editors did, or Truman Capote did. They point to her never publishing another book, or to stories that Mockingbird was composed and submitted as a series of scenes, vignettes rather than a cohesive story, or to rumors that the story required “deep editing”. Some of the things Harper Lee was quoted as saying about a difficult editorial process for Mockingbird could also be said about the process I’ve experienced, which leads me to believe that many authors rely on their editors for frank, tough, even grueling criticism and advice so as to make stories stronger. The fact that Harper Lee experienced this tells us nothing about the originality of her work.
Another camp, literary “authorities”, insists that Mockingbird isn’t serious literature, just a popular, emotive story. For many of these so-called authorities, any literary work that depicts a world in which beauty, truth, and virtue matter is un-serious by definition. Even Terry Teachout, the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, whose reviews I normally respect and enjoy, parrots the popular narrative that Mockingbird isn’t serious literature, being populated with good guys and bad guys, as if there aren’t heroically good people like Atticus Finch, or willfully evil people like Robert E. Lee Ewell. Doesn’t limiting serious literature to ambiguous—“nuanced”, in the words of these literary authorities—characters constrain and cramp storytelling? Not to mention, the many characters in Mockingbird who are a mixture of light and darkness, including Walter Cunningham’s father, Atticus’ sister, and Mrs. Dubose. This is the same argument the same people use to dismiss Tolkien, Patrick O’Brian, and Dickens, with the same holes in it, but to break with this orthodoxy is to risk being discounted as a literary authority, a risk that few are willing to take.
I ask you, what other story related from the perspective of children—Scout, Jem, and Dill—has so elegantly and poignantly captured the precociousness, the innocence, and the incipient maturity of children who simultaneously live in Arcadian and Nietzschean worlds?
In one of our correspondences—handwritten, in spite of her arthritis—Harper Lee wrote, “My thoughts on leadership are few, but one thing I think is mandatory for leadership lived is example. I think how one conducts oneself is worth more than any amount of words (Especially in situations of crisis. A cool head always carries the day.) I agree with whoever said, (and I think it was Matthew Arnold) ‘Conduct is three-fourths of life.’” Her words apply to Atticus Finch, to Harper Lee’s father—Atticus’ real-life model—and to Harper Lee herself.
Sometimes, in our correspondence, my daughter and I sign off as Scout and Atticus. This is the effect that Mockingbird and Harper Lee have had on our family. She doesn’t need money. She doesn’t need notoriety. She should be honored and cherished, as she deserves, in her later years.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!