Harper Lee died on Friday, two months shy of her ninetieth birthday. But she has effectively been lost to most of the world for a very long time. Since 1964, four years after the publication of her famous, and famously beloved, novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published, and two years after the equally beloved movie version starring Gregory Peck as Atticus hit the theatres, she has guarded her privacy, studiously avoided publicity, and spurned requests for interviews. Apparently when a friend once suggested she use a form letter to refuse requests from the press, she quipped that it should simply read: “Hell, no.”
|Nelle Harper Lee in 1961 source|
It’s not my intention to narrate the story of Harper Lee’s life here, nor retell the events that surrounded her rise to fame and her subsequent rejection of the life of a “literary celebrity.” William Grimes’ excellent article on Harper Lee, published in the New York Times on the day of her death does a much better job than I could. You can read that here if you like.
|Harper Lee based her fictional Maycomb on her hometown Monroeville, Alabama. Here seen in the 1930’s. source|
|Monroeville in the 1930’s. source|
So, as someone who knows the novel To Kill a Mockingbird very well…. and who knows a fair bit about Harper Lee, her closely guarded privacy, and her pronouncements that she would never publish another novel… I was stunned when Harper Collins announced early in 2015 that it was set to publish Go Set a Watchman, a “new” novel by Harper Lee. Along with many other readers, not to mention Lee’s friends and neighbours in Alabama, I was surprised, then thrilled, and then… well, skeptical. Really? A “new” work?
|Old county courthouse in Monroeville used as the model for the courtroom in To Kill a Mockingbird. source|
Go Set a Watchman, as might be expected of an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, is not great literature. But it is undoubtedly the work of Harper Lee, conspiracy theories to the contrary. There are flashes of the brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, and beautiful passages of description and dialogue. But there are also many weak passages of long, rambling discussion and political theorizing that I skipped through. For a better understanding of the novel, and of the “southern Liberalism” of the fifties which Lee seems to be exploring in the book, you should read Adam Gopnik’s article “Sweet Home Alabama” in the New Yorker. Or Kevin Young’s insightful review in Slate.
|Nelle Harper Lee and her older sister Alice Lee source|
If you do read Go Set a Watchman, make sure you have read To Kill a Mockingbird first. Because, as Gopnik says in his article, once you know and love the character of Atticus, only then can you really understand the depth of Scout’s disillusionment with him. And to me that’s the value in reading Watchman. In Mockingbird we see Atticus as a hero; in Watchman we see him as a man. Flawed, clinging to outmoded values, trying desperately to shore up a society that is crumbling.
I also don’t agree that Go Set a Watchman will weaken Harper Lee’s literary legacy. I mean really, To Kill a Mockingbird is still the great book it always was. Okay, so the “discovery” of the Watchman manuscript, shrouded as it is in mystery and controversy seems contrived and a bit silly. And Harper Lee’s lawyer and purported “great friend” Tonja Carter seems to be a bit shady, what with accusations that she has manipulated the author, her refusal to answer questions from the press, and the weirdly coincidental announcement to publish Watchman only a few months after the death of Harper Lee’s fiercely protective older sister Alice. Alice would probably, according to some articles, have objected to the publication.
But none of this real-life literary melodrama should touch Lee’s work itself. Or alter the effect that Lee’s characters and their struggles have on her readers. And I think the flawed nature of Go Set a Watchman is interesting in that it reveals to us that, just as Atticus is shown to have feet of clay, so Lee herself as a writer is not perfect.
Since Harper Collins’ announcement last winter, I must have read fifty articles on Lee herself, and this “new” work. And what they revealed to me besides all the hype and controversy was a glimpse into Lee’s early working life, before and after To Kill a Mockingbird. How she struggled to revise Mockingbird, once even chucking the manuscript out of her window into the snow, how she struggled in vain to write a second book. And eventually how she withdrew more and more from the glare of publicity, tired of the scrutiny and the media circus, ever more protective of her privacy. So, you see, she wasn’t a literary genius, who gave birth to one miraculously perfect work and then withdrew from the world. She was a gifted writer who struggled, just as many young writers struggle. And seeing her less than perfect second (or is it first?) novel makes her seem more human. Like the rest of us.
I’m sad that Nelle Harper Lee has died. I hope that all the fuss in the last months of her life, since the publication of Go Set a Watchman in July, was not distressing to her. That having long ago said good-bye to all that, she didn’t feel once again beleaguered by her own celebrity. Because that would be very sad, indeed.