“draggin’ [her] with [her] shy ways into the limelight … that’s a sin”: Why I’m not writing about Go Set a Watchman

July 16, 2015

I don’t plan to write about Go Set a Watchman. I don’t plan to read it.

I might change my mind. I might read a review of the book that piques my interest, my disinclination toward it might change, something might overcome my suspicion that the book is not something that, left to her own devices, Harper Lee would ever have allowed to been published. But I doubt it.

What I suspect is that this novel is, at best, an inchoate book that has been assembled to exploit the often morbid curiosity that has surrounded its author for years. It is a thing created to generate money rather a work designed to illuminate and tease the mysteries of the human condition. And while most books are probably exactly that, I don’t write about most books. There is to little time to devote much energy to the cynical machinations of capitalist main chancers.

I could be wrong. Go Set a Watchman might taste like pumpkin pie, but I don’t think it’s legitimate and I have decided not to play into the hands of the marketers by buying my own copy.

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I will admit that had the publicity machine offered me a review copy a couple of months ago, allowed me time to read and digest the book before publication and enabled me to write a thoughtful, serious-minded review, I might have taken them up on it. But they only offered a free copy after publication, intended to encourage me to participate in the giddy media chop up going on around us now. I believe they expected me to write about it without reading it or deeply considering it, that they expected me to devote a few inches in ther newspaper that they could count as free publicity.

I’d prefer not to take part in that, though I guess even by publishing this piece explaining why I’m not writing about Go Set a Watchman I am to some degree complicit in the hypefest. So let me acknowledge my hypocrisy. But I’m not publishing this piece in the newspaper. I’m just sticking it on my blog.

I don’t know Lee. I have never had that much curiosity about her. I was never one of those people who wanted to go to Monroeville and “befriend” her, to learn her secrets and expose her monastic existence as some kind of long con. I suspect she had her own reasons for not wanting to be a celebrity, and maybe she found the obvious problems with following up a first novel like To Kill a Mockingbird insurmountable. I do not believe Truman Capote wrote her book for her. I think it is possible she simply never felt compelled to write another book, and that the success of TKAM allowed her to live as she pleased. To the extent I thought about her, I was sort of proud of her — I thought she retained a lovely dignity.

And so, full disclosure, her alleged sanctioning of publication of a second novel at this late, post-stroke date is at least disappointing to me. But Lee can do what she wants, if she is in fact capable of assenting to this sort of thing. Pardon me if I’m suspicious.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if she was shaken by the success of her first novel, if part of her didn’t wonder what all the fuss was about.

There has never been a book at once as beloved and disrespected as To Kill a Mockingbird. A deceptively simple story of a couple of eventful years in a small Alabama town during the Depression told from the perspective of a six -year-old tomboy named Scout has become one of those obligatory classics that one must necessarily encounter (if not exactly read) in high school (if not junior high) English class. The book is really two related stories, a very funny and affectionate comedy of rural Southern manners and a tragic courtroom drama about a black man falsely accused (and wrongly convicted) of the rape of a white woman.

The movie version, which is probably even more a part of our collective consciousness than the book, has furnished us with an archetypal American moral hero in the image of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the thoughtful, circumspect lawyer who stands on principle in the face of the mob. Finch, Scout’s father, is the white Southern man who rises above his training, who believes in the rule of law and that “one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

It is a perennial best-seller. To me, it has always seemed more instructive to observe that Lee never had to publish another novel than that she never did so. Capote, her childhood friend, and, famously, the model for the boy Dill in her novel, lived a public life that may have provided her with a cautionary model. In any case, Lee didn’t seek publicity, and that’s her prerogative. For all we know it is with her as it was with the reclusive Boo Radley in her novel — perhaps, as she has Sheriff Tate say, “draggin’ [her] with [her] shy ways into the limelight … that’s a sin.”

TKAM has never gone out of print, and it produces sufficient annual royalties to support a lady who’d prefer not to be bothered by newspaper reporters and would-be acolytes. It has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 40 languages.

And yet when, in 1998, the Modern Library conducted a poll of critics and scholars about the 100 greatest English language novels of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t mentioned. When it was released, Flannery O’Connor dismissed it as “a wonderful children’s book.”

In the more than 50 years since its publication, the novel has received relatively little attention from critics. Don Noble, professor emeritus of English at the University of Alabama and the editor of a book of essays about the book (Critical Insights: To Kill a Mockingbird, Salem Press, $85), once estimated that the ratio of sales to analytical essays about the book could be 1-to-1,000,000.

But maybe that is not all that curious, when you think about it. No one would suggest that To Kill a Mockingbird is a particularly difficult book to understand. Its lessons seem clear and it might seem insulting to suggest to general readers that they need a specialist to parse the book’s language.

“Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners,” Lee herself wrote in a letter to the editor of the Richmond (Va.) News-Leader in 1966. (The missive was prompted by the Hanover County School Board’s decision to remove the book from school libraries because it was “immoral.”)

And of course, there is some snobbery involved. The presumption is that generally popular works aren’t as good as difficult ones — and the presumption is generally correct. We do consume more junk than is good for us.

But O’Connor’s critique notwithstanding, To Kill a Mockingbird is a very fine book, as close to a perfect novel as we are likely to get. That it can be apprehended by children as well as by adults is a credit, rather than a deficit. It is a novel that can be returned to — some people read it over and over again.

It does have what some people might perceive as flaws. Scout’s precocity seems to irritate some people, who can’t imagine that a child could be at once so acerbically observant and, well, so, six years old. When Scout determines that she means to marry the (slightly) younger Dill and he begins to spend too much time around her older brother Jem, she decides the way to get him to pay more attention to her is to beat him up. Which she does. Twice.

In a way, Scout’s voice is the key to the novel in the same way Mattie Ross’ voice is the key to Charles Portis’ True Grit. It’s clear from the first sentence that Scout is looking back on these events from a perspective of some years, that we’re not listening to a 6-year-old but to a woman of some experience and education telling us a story about her childhood. We know from the beginning that Jem will have his arm broken, and we might presume that the narrator will still be around at the end since she’s telling the story.

Another of the strengths of the book is that it gives us human characters. Atticus Finch is a good man, a moral person, but he’s not a saint or an angel. He may not even be a liberal, at least not in the way we understand the world today. He works within the system and accepts the limitations of the system, not because he lacks the imagination to stand up Gary Cooper-style against the mob (in fact, he does do that) but because he recognizes the limits of what a single wellmeaning man can do. Atticus is a father, he can stand up for Tom Robinson, he can do his best for him, but he cannot in the end save him. And it is bitter to know that right and justice do not always prevail, but it is the truth.

Sometimes modern readers see Atticus as a compromised man, but in the context of his time — 1936 — he was doing what he could. Lee based the character on her father, a lawyer and newspaper publisher who unsuccessfully defended a black man and his son accused of murder during the Depression. He was as bound to his own beliefs and convictions as we are — the conscience may not be subject to majority rule, but it is also limited by what it believes it knows.

When Scout and Jem ask their father about the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in their town, he responds in a way we might find dismissive: “Way back about 1923 there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anyone to scare. They paraded by Mr. Sam Levy’s house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told ’em things had come to a pretty pass …. Sam made ’em so ashamed of themselves they went away.”

From our perspective, we might be alarmed by Atticus’ understatement of the Klan’s threat, for we understand that there were lynchings of blacks and Jews in the early part of the 20th century. We know about the violence that came in the 1960s. But Atticus is a middleaged, white Southerner talking to children in the 1930s. Would he necessarily relate to them the horrible story of the lynching of Leo Frank? Or would he tell his kids not to worry about the hateful element that scuttles through the outwardly bucolic Maycomb?

When Atticus describes the leader of a mob as “basically a good man,” who “just has his blind spots along with the rest of us,” he’s not exempting himself from occasional sightlessness. That’s the problem with blind spots, we don’t notice them until they’re called to our attention. Atticus behaves as well as a person can be expected to behave under the circumstances, but he can’t escape the culture he was part and parcel of — he can only be its best expression.

As such maybe Atticus is a suitable target for criticism, but to my mind Lee was just reporting how things are. People who want Atticus to crusade, to breathe fire, are asking for a less subtle, more vulgar book.

There’s a reason To Kill a Mockingbird has become a classic, and it’s not because people are stupid. It’s because it’s one of those rare things that’s actually as good as advertised.

I think Harper Lee realized that, and for whatever reason, decided not to give us an encore performance. Maybe she’s changed her mind, but that seem unlikely to me, and I’ve seen no convincing evidence that Go Set a Watchman is more than an assemblage of working papers and drafts. I’m not exactly against it being published — it might have some value to critics and scholars, it might be interesting for any number of reasons — but I don’t think it should be represented as a legitimate follow-up (or prequel) to To Kill a Mockingbird.

It shouldn’t be the bestseller it has become.

I don’t think that’s what Harper Lee wants; and I don’t think it’s fair to her legacy.

I could be wrong. But I want no part of this.


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