Ever since I read that To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee’s lawyer Tonya Carter and publisher HarperCollins were planning to publish the first draft of a novel she wrote 57 or so years ago, I have been sick to death for her legacy. Lee had not deemed it appropriate to publish any of her attempts at another book for 50 years, so it has been impossible for me to believe that this 89-year-old woman who is partially blind, deaf, suffering from memory loss, and cared for in an Alabama home for the aged has suddenly decided it was time to publish another novel.
The book entitled Go Set a Watchman went on sale today and, according to The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani and other critics, is a mediocre novel that depicts Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch as a racist. This would be the same Atticus Finch that was portrayed with such breathtaking dignity by Gregory Peck in his 1962-Academy-Award-winning role as the Alabama lawyer who defended a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
Acording to the online version of Newsweek magazine, HarperCollins says that Kakutani’s review, which appeared in the Times four days before the book’s release, was based on information from a leaked copy of the book. If the magazine’s reporting is correct, plaudits are in order to the Times for putting out the word on the novel’s contents which may lower the potential payday for HarperCollins and Harper Lee’s perfidious lawyer who seem to care more about dollar signs than about Lee’s legacy.
With a nod to Dave Letterman, I have listed below the Top 10 reasons Harper Lee’s handlers should not have published this book.
10) Go Set a Watchman was not edited for publication. The most basic reason, the book should never have been published is that no legitimate publisher would print a first draft of a book that had not been thoroughly edited in a back-and-forth manner with the author. In an interview shown during PBS’s American Masters TV show on the book’s publishing, a HarperCollins functionary said nothing was changed from Lee’s original text of Watchman which her original publisher chose not to print when it was originally submitted in 1957. Lee’s health mitigates such a possibility, so the idea of publishing should have been abandoned.
9) Lee’s handlers appear to have waited until after her sister Alice died last year to publish Watchman since it is highly unlikely that Alice would have allowed publication to go forward. Alice, an attorney who practiced law until just before her death in 2014 at the age of 103, had always acted to protect her younger sister’s best interests and legacy.
8) Decades ago Nelle Harper Lee decided to have nothing to do with living a public life. After To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and became a bestseller, Lee granted interviews and was involved in the making of the movie version of her book. However, after a few years she became disenchanted with the media hubbub, made it clear she wanted to live a quiet life with no publicity, and has not granted an interview since 1964.
7) Lee’s age and health have diminished her ability to act wisely on her own behalf. Nelle suffered a stroke in 2007 that left her bound to a wheelchair, nearly blind, deaf, and with memory loss. Although the state of Alabama investigated and eventually dismissed elder abuse and coercion charges earlier this year, it is clear that Lee’s ability to make discerning decisions to protect her legacy have been seriously diminished.
6) As a likely beneficiary of Lee’s estate, Tonya B. Carter, Lee’s lawyer, stands to inherit more money if she allows publication of Go Set a Watchman, along with a third novel that Nelle Harper Lee in her prime chose not to have published. Carter said she only last year “discovered” in Lee’s safe deposit box the Go Set a Watchman text that had been “lost” for half a century. However, Carter’s veracity has been called into question by two men who were asked to view the safe deposit box’s contents in 2011 to appraise Watchman as the original draft for Mockingbird along with some other valuable documents.
5) Instead of being a paragon of justice in a racist Southern town as in Mockingbird, Atticus Finch–and by extension, Lee’s father A.C. who was her inspiration for the character–are portrayed in Watchman as racist defenders of segregation. Lee’s first draft of a novel (Watchman) was about a young woman coming home to Alabama after living in New York to find the father she once idolized was a bigot and racist who was against desegregation. Editor Tay Hohoff at J. P. Lippencott, Lee’s original publisher, advised her to rewrite the story from the viewpoint of the young woman as a child growing up in the Depression-era South. Nelle Harper and Alice Lee’s father A.C. Lee was an Alabama lawyer and state legislator who had defended two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. Lee said she modeled Atticus Finch after her father.
4) It is always the better part of valor not to add a coda to a masterpiece. In 1961 To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, it has never been out of print, and has an estimated 30 million copies in print. Although the book has been banned through the years in some school districts for its subject matter, it has been read and studied by school children throughout the U.S. (and the world) as an example of understanding and overcoming prejudice, standing up for what you believe when it is not popular or may even be dangerous, and the simple dignity of two men–one black (Tom Robinson) and one white (Atticus Finch)–standing together against hatred, ignorance, prejudice, and racism.
3) The new book’s publication calls into question how much of Lee’s masterpiece was attributable to her writing ability and how much was due to the insights of her editor. After she read Lee’s original draft of Watchman, Hohoff said the book “was more a series of anecdotes than a fully realized novel.” She commented, however, that “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line.” It would have been vastly more prudent to allow Mockingbird to stand on its own achievements without this microscopic view of its birthing process.
2) Harper Lee decided decades ago that she could not improve on her first novel and that any additional attempts to do so would be fruitless. Mockingbird was Nelle Harper Lee’s story to tell, and she told it beautifully and well. Her handlers should have acted on what was best for Nelle Lee and her legacy not their own selfish interests.
1) You should never kill a mockingbird. As Harper Lee wrote,
Atticus said to Jem one day, ‘I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. ‘Your father’s right,’ she said. ‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’
Harper Lee sang her heart out for us through the voices of Scout and Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. That song was pure, rang true, and touched the hearts of other mockingbirds throughout the world. That story was full in the telling and, as we say in the South, should have been let alone.
//Anna – 7/14/2015