Opinion: Do we really want to read a new Harper Lee novel?
Count me among those not so excited that a long-mothballed Harper Lee novel will be published this summer. It will be a literary curiosity, but will it be good? And is publishing the book in Lee’s best interests?
The manuscript is being described as a sequel to Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the evergreen novel of race in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era (The Times’ 1960 review is here). But that was Lee’s second novel. The unpublished and now rediscovered “Go Set a Watchman,” which she wrote first, is the story of Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returning as an adult to her fictional hometown, Maycomb, Ala., to visit her father.
“She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood,” according to a release from Harper’s, which will publish the book in July.
Lee sent that manuscript to her editor in the late 1950s; the editor liked it but was taken with flashback scenes about Scout’s coming of age in Maycomb. So Lee went back to work, producing “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in which Scout’s lawyer father, Atticus Finch, tries to save a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Lee put her first manuscript in a drawer and there it sat until her lawyer, Tonja Carter, found it in storage. Carter became Lee’s lawyer after the author’s sister – and longtime lawyer and protector – Alice Lee died in November (Carter is a partner in Alice Lee’s law firm).
So there’s cause for some skepticism about whether Lee, reportedly in poor physical health herself, really wanted this book published. After all, she had six decades to find it in her files if she was interested in having the public read it.
Fame did not suit Lee. She’s often described as reclusive, but in fact she was, over the decades, a regular sight around Monroeville, Ala., where she has spent most of her life. Rather than reclusive, she has just avoided publicity.
That didn’t hurt book sales. “To Kill a Mockingbird” has sold tens of millions of copies and is a rite of passage for American English students – everybody, it seems, reads it at some point.
But not everyone reads “To Kill a Mockingbird” the same way, or from the same racial perspective. Fifteen years ago I wrote an article about the racial divide over “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Whites find heroes in Scout and Atticus; African Americans find stereotypes in Tom Robinson, the black defendant, and Calpurnia, the Finches’ black nanny.
Richard Yarborough, an English professor at UCLA, told me then that Atticus Finch as the would-be savior to Robinson reflects a long history of race-weighted roles. “The black character is the victim and he or she becomes the test upon which any struggle for moral satisfaction on the part of the white savior is waged,” he said. “These texts tend to sentimentalize the black character tremendously, and objectify these characters in a very simplistic way. They don’t have much personal life and rarely is the black community embodied.”
In fact, one high school teacher told me that while white students related to the novel’s characters and the plot, black students found the book demoralizing. Tiana Dudley, an African American student then performing in a play based on the novel, told me then that she believed the story was being told “from the white perspective, from a racist kind of view.... You don’t see much about the African American characters; you don’t get to know them on a personal level.... But it definitely has a [universal] message behind it. I know it’s basically about racism but that’s not all that you can get out of it.”
I’ve been thinking about this as I wonder what this old/new novel will be. The charm of “To Kill a Mockingbird” lies in Scout’s youthful perspective of an adult world that she discovers at the age of 9 can be quite brutal, and unjust. Did Lee have another story to tell in Scout’s return to town 20 years later? Or will the new book be redundant? And will the 29-year-old Scout have anything fresh to say about race and the South?
We’ll all find out when we read it, which many of us assuredly will do. And then we’ll also know whether that long ago editor’s instinct was right, and whether Scout’s story has already been told as well as Lee can tell it.
Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.
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