Villainous Age in Harper Lee’s “Oeuvre”

There are some books that I read over and over again. From the time I was in sixth grade up into my last year of college, I read To Kill a Mockingbird at least twice a year. (I’ll be citing the edition that is yellow and a little torn beyond its years: it’s the first Warner Books edition, from 1982.) It’s one of the fundamental texts of Southern literature and one of the major American films, the story of a small town in Alabama that is forced to look the embodiment of its own ugliness in the face and then looks away again. In the film, Tom Robinson’s trial is the clear focus; the first twenty minutes exist to justify the appearance of Boo Radley in the final reel. In the novel, the town is at the center of the story; part of what makes the trial of Tom Robinson meaningful – the trial  is hinted at repeatedly throughout the first half before it dominates the second – is the powerful sense of who lives in Maycomb County and what they are.

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it” (Lee 5). The inhabitants are also, for the most part, old and tired. Youth is embodied by Scout and Jem, the children of a man who had them well into his middle years; the third child of note, Dill, flits in for the summers and out again for the school year. Other kids come and go in terms of importance (measured largely by how much/how frequently Scout beats them up), but for the most part, the sense of people living in a different time is accentuated by how rarely Scout and Jem really interact with other children. Dill is the only one who consistently enters into their play, and his relationship with adults is, to say the very least, troubled. Scout’s cousin, Francis, views Dill’s position as degrading: “he just gets passed around from relative to relative” (83); Dill’s relationship with his mother and stepfather consists of “now-you’ve-got-it-go-play-with-it” (143). What the adults do to the children in this novel is no great mystery, but the children are still mystified when the adults can’t acquit Tom Robinson. In To Kill a Mockingbird, as I think is the case in real life, the preceding generation is the problem. Mr. Radley locks up his son, who is not too pathologically shy to save the lives of children and show them kindness from a distance over the course of years. Walter Cunningham’s father is part of a lynch mob that is miraculously cooled off by the presence of children; Walter Cunningham’s uncles and cousins sentence Tom Robinson to death.

Unfortunately, the preceding generation are somehow still perceived by their successors as moral. In eulogizing Mrs. Dubose, a genuinely nasty piece of work who is everything bad about the Old South dressed up as an old lady with a shawl, is characterized by Atticus as “the bravest person I ever knew” (Lee 112). Doubtless, her will to break a morphine addiction in the last months of her life is a testament to a certain kind of inner fortitude, but her? How about that time when Atticus was surprisingly nonchalant about the Ku Klux Klan, stating that they were little more than a “political organization” and “they couldn’t find anybody to scare” (147), as if scaring was the whole of what the Klan was after. Aging doesn’t even become the children. Jem’s lightheartedness and whimsical bossiness somehow morph themselves into a self-important prissiness in the back half of the book. Miss Maudie tells Jem after the trail that some men are meant to fight the ugly battles which need to be fought; one wonders, from this perspective, if the children ought to fight them instead.

In a few days, Go Set a Watchman will be available for purchase. Go Set a Watchman is being called a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, the first published work by Harper Lee in more than half a century. The reviews have been sensational, in the sense that the material is not what millions of us who have read TKAM would have expected. Atticus is racist, a segregationist. Atticus – whose closest literary parallel, as far as I can tell, is Simon of Cyrene – the guy who espouses an idealism about the American court system that would Michael Brown’s parents laugh (Lee 205), the guy who thinks that he couldn’t worship God if he didn’t defend Tom Robinson (104), the guy who says he tries to “love everybody” (108). In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus asks Scout if she could live in a world where black and white children go to school together. This is apparently just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s the quote I see most frequently in the reviews. Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that Atticus is over seventy, in Go Set a Watchman, as nightmarishly old and ill as Mrs. Dubose was in To Kill a Mockingbird.

The facts of Go Set a Watchman‘s production history are pretty clear. I remember being taught in eighth grade that Harper Lee had produced a novel about a young woman whose flashbacks to her childhood were much more interesting than the actual plot. The flashbacks were expanded on and became To Kill a Mockingbird. The original novel was Go Set a Watchman. When people call Go Set a Watchman a sequel, what they mean is that it takes place in a time that happened after the years that To Kill a Mockingbird took place in; they do not mean that it was written after To Kill a Mockingbird, with the plot and main ideas of To Kill a Mockingbird in mind, and if that’s what they mean, they are wrong.

Regardless, people are acting like Harper Lee has written a new novel. (By the way, Harper Lee is eighty-nine, is about seventy-five percent of the way to being Helen Keller, doesn’t give interviews, and is in assisted living while someone else runs her estate. I understand that legally, she has given consent for the publication of Go Set a Watchman. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you’ll have to excuse my skepticism.) The New York Times already has an article out which tries to justify why a harsher, more difficult portrayal of Atticus Finch might be a good thing. It would be easier just to say: “Hey y’all. It’s a draft of a novel you like a whole bunch, and it’s hard to actually take it seriously given how much work Harper Lee has done on it since 1957.” But HarperCollins is set to make an absurd amount of money on the book (no one makes money off of books anymore, in case you hadn’t heard) and thus the reaction on social media and in the halls of print journalism (no one makes money off of print journalism anymore, in case you hadn’t heard) are little excessive.

There’s always been a weird tendency to print anything that you can get your hands on from a famous author in the hopes that someone will read it. Remember when they republished All the King’s Men but called him “Willie Talos” instead of “Willie Stark,” because in a manuscript, Robert Penn Warren called him that? (Whether that’s a reference to The Faerie Queene or Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece is whatever.) Or that time when Ralph Ellison’s unfinished novel was published not once but twice under different names? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon has a similar problem. Meyer Wolfsheim says about Gatsby, “Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.” I have a corollary I hope we can follow for literary figures: “Let us learn to show our admiration for a writer by buying the books they actually wrote, edited, finished, and published during their active careers.” And if that doesn’t work for you, fanfiction is still a thing.

Go Set a Watchman does, in my view, have one redeeming quality. There are strong hints in TKAM, outside of the kind of ignorance endemic to white people which makes him think of the Klan as a primarily political body, which imply that Atticus has fought a lifelong battle with his own racism. Consider, from Atticus’ conversation with Scout on page 77:

Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess.

and with his brother Jack, on page 88:

“…You know, I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but John Taylor pointed at me and said, ‘You’re It.’

“Let this cup pass from you, eh?”

“Right. But do you think I could face my children otherwise?”

It’s very easy to look at those two quotes and say that the personal toll Atticus will have to pay in this case is related to his desire to protect his children from the bared ugliness of Maycomb (as opposed to raising them within the barely veiled ugliness of Maycomb, I guess). Or maybe the toll is the corresponding disrespect he’ll receive from his formerly deferential neighbors. But what if Atticus is, even in TKAM, struggling with a deep-seated racism based on his upbringing and his position? Doesn’t that add a sort of mournful resonance to “I try to love everyone,” putting the emphasis on “try” rather than “everyone”? That’s interesting. And even after the million times I’ve read the book, that hadn’t occurred to me until Go Set a Watchman cast Atticus as a sort of diet George Wallace.

For me, this is why if you’re going to take Go Set a Watchman seriously, it has to be in the context of To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman has ideas, clues to help us look for things that were easily overlooked in To Kill a Mockingbird. Just like “Absolution” unlocks ideas we may never have fulfilled about The Great Gatsby, so too might Go Set a Watchman help us consider To Kill a Mockingbird with a greater plurality. Is Atticus Finch a hardcore racist just because he was a hardcore racist in a novel that was set aside five years before the publication of the one people know him from? Of course not. Authors don’t get to decide this stuff anyway. But can we gain a more nuanced vision of where to look in TKAM for ideas we probably didn’t have before? Hopefully, because otherwise this will all be a lot of tsuris for sixteen bucks‘ worth of manuscript.

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