Sour reaction to Harper Lee’s novel stirs controversy

For just over half a century, Nelle Harper Lee has been the great mystery of the literary world – not so much a “what if” as a “why?” Why would a woman who had written such an extraordinary debut novel never write another book? Why would such a beloved author throw down her shutters against all publicity, all fans, all demands on her time? Why?

The most likely answer was given by her older sister, Alice, who told documentary filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murphy that Lee had long ago simply said, “I haven’t anywhere to go, but down.”

The first chapter of Go Set a Watchman was published at the weekend in the Guardian, 55 years to the day after To Kill a Mockingbird, and embargos have already been broken by reviewers releasing their verdicts before the book’s publication on Tuesday. And lo, the public and critical reaction has firmly vindicated Lee’s decision long ago to reject the outside world and put down her pen.

Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird and it was rejected by her publisher. She spent two years reworking the book, setting it two decades earlier and changing the narrator, which turned it into the novel so beloved today. So despite the chronology, Watchman is not the sequel to Mockingbird – it is a first draft.

And yet, in reviews it has been compared unfavourably to its follow-up, as though it were somehow a surprise that an unedited (Lee reportedly told her editor she wanted Watchman released as it was written), rejected first draft should be inferior to one that was published and became a classic. “Lacks the lyricism of Mockingbird,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times; “less likeable,” Mark Lawson wrote in the Guardian. The comparisons with Mockingbird, which Lee allegedly feared so much she never wrote again, have been as predictable as they are inevitable. But they are not, despite what reviewers seem to think, requisite or revealing.

Author Harper Lee.

Then we come to the plot differences between the two books. The first, which is revealed in the first chapter, is that Jean Louise Finch’s brother is dead – as fans of Mockingbird quickly realised, this means Jem. Seeing as so many readers have long read Mockingbird as Lee’s quasi-autobiography, this is not a surprise, as Lee’s own older brother, Edwin, died suddenly in adulthood. More shocking, apparently, is the revelation that Atticus Finch, the morally upright lawyer of Mockingbird, is in Watchman a racist who argues for segregation. 

This, the New York Times fretted, “could reshape Ms Lee’s legacy”, as though it were Watchman itself that were racist (which it isn’t – Jean Louise is horrified by her father’s attitude), as opposed to a fictional character. “As far as literary scandals go”, tutted the Daily Mail, “it couldn’t get much worse”. 

The reactions on social media were similarly outsized, suggesting quite a few adults do not grasp the difference between (a) real life and fiction, (b) characters and authors, and (c) Atticus Finch and their father. I feel some sympathy for any hipster parents out there who named their son Atticus, but otherwise I have little time for readers who feel personally affronted that an author experimented with different versions of a character before writing the final version.

One of the most enduring criticisms of Mockingbird has been that it is too simplistic – particularly the character of Atticus. In a 2006 essay in the New Yorker, Thomas Mallon described him, with some justification, as “a plaster saint”. So there is an amusing irony that some fans of the book are so outraged at this suggestion of shades to the character. Truly, an author cannot win.

Similarly, some reviewers have raised their handkerchiefs in horror at seeing Jean Louise use racially charged descriptions such as the smell of “a clean negro”. Presumably these reviewers are relying on their memories of the film of Mockingbird instead of the actual book, given that Scout and Jem frequently use the N-word in the novel, as poor white children in Alabama in the 1930s, when the book was set, most certainly would have done. Both Watchman and Mockingbird were written in the 1950s. Judging the racial attitudes in these books by today’s standards is as ridiculous as expecting a character, let alone an author, to behave exactly as you would like.

Some Mockingbird fans have been comforting themselves with the idea that Lee never wanted this book published, a theory that has been firmly rejected by her editors. One British journalist was so outraged at the idea Lee was being forced into the spotlight she barrelled up to the old-age home where Lee now lives before being ejected by security.

There is a similar well-meaning hamfistedness to the reaction to Watchman in that it encapsulates everything Lee feared about writing again: the unreasonable expectations, the comparisons, the absurdly immature attitude that Lee’s books are ours, as opposed to hers. For so long, readers told her they wanted more, and now they can’t wait to kick the little we’ve unexpectedly been given. Honestly, is anyone out there still wondering why she never wrote again? As Lee – always wiser than any of her characters, including saintly non-racist Atticus – knew, the only way was down.

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