After a 55 year-long silence, Harper Lee is publishing a sequel
to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird
From just a purely literary viewpoint, this is huge news. Imagine a new
J.D. Salinger novel coming to light about Holden Caulfield 20 years
later. That's essentially the premise for Lee's "new" novel, Go Set a Watchman
. I say "new" in quotes because, according to Miss Lee's account, Watchman
written first and the flashback chapters about Scout Finch's childhood
so captivated Lee's editor that he asked her to expand upon it. So,
was written first, she and her publisher decided to go with Mockingbird
, which was actually a prequel.
As with Agatha Christie's "final" novel, Curtain,
which was written during the London blitz when she was still at the
height of her powers (In case she was killed during the Nazi shelling,
leaving Hercule Poirot's legacy unfinished), Lee's manuscript then got
misplaced and she thought it was lost until her attorney found it last
year in a "secure location." (Lesson to authors: Always back up your
manuscripts.) Ergo, the long-awaited second Lee novel will come out on
July 14th and Harper's publisher (also Harper) will come out with an
initial print run of 2,000,000 copies.
So, this is all good news for book lovers, especially fans of Miss Lee,
and is the biggest news in the book business to come out in years. But
how relevant will a second Scout/Atticus Finch novel be in 21st century
America, especially decades after the undeclared death of what used to
be the Civil Rights movement? Indeed, should we care about a new Scout Finch novel or what happens in Maycomb, Alabama 20 years later
in the mid 50's when Scout, now a mature woman, returns from New York
like a prodigal daughter? Why should a sequel be relevant to a
"post-racial" America now boasting an African American president, no
need for a Civil Rights movement or Affirmative Action and with a gutted Voting Rights Act of 1965? Why should we greet Go Set a Watchman with anything other than literary curiosity?
Would it be any more relevant than, say, a sequel to Uncle Tom's Cabin
were one to come to light? A new Harriet Beecher Stowe novel
continuing the saga would be a literary curiosity but hardly relevant in
a nation that abolished slavery 150 years ago with the ratification of
the 13th amendment. So, how relevant is Harper Lee and the Finches
considering both books were written years before the Civil Rights and
Voting Rights Acts?
All too much.
Considering it's one of the most famous stories in modern American
fiction, one hardly needs me or anyone to relate the abstracts of a book
that's been taught in schools for over half a century. But for the sake
of context, I'll give you the throughline:
A classic Bildungsroman work of fiction, To Kill a Mockingbird
features widowed attorney Atticus Finch, father of the protagonist
Scout. A black man, Tom Robinson, is accused of raping a young white
woman named Mayella Ewell and Finch agrees to defend him. Generally
viewed as a model of legal integrity, Finch fights tooth and nail for
his client and, despite essentially proving Robinson's lack of guilt,
the jury convicts him, anyway. Robinson is then shot and killed as he
tries to escape from prison.
There is some justice in To Kill a Mockingbird
(Tom Ewell, father of the raped woman, seeks revenge despite the
conviction and "fell on his own knife" as the Sheriff tells Finch) but
not much. The epitome of the Southern Gothic novel, one reminiscent of
Tennessee Williams and Faulkner, Lee's book offers an unflinching look
into the "Just Us" system of the Deep South and the unjust persecution
and prosecution of innocent African Americans we still see in the
Bewildered by her
father's moral code that made him risk both their lives during those
three years in the Great Depression in his defense of an innocent man,
Scout returns from the Big Apple and, according to Harper Collins, then tries to understand her father Atticus better. It is important to remember that Miss Lee had written Watchman in
the mid 1950s, even before I was born. It was not intended to be a
period novel or a snapshot into a bygone age yet that is the prism with
which we necessarily need to view it.
Yet, while Lee's masterpiece is a brutally honest
scrutiny of her small Alabama hometown (many of the characters are based
on her relatives and neighbors), the United States, particularly the
Deep South, has, if anything, gotten even uglier. Black males, most famously the Scottsboro Boys and 14 year-old Emmett Till (who was murdered the same year Watchman was
drafted), were commonly charged, convicted or outright lynched over
alleged crimes to white women. Jurors tended to be all white and
prosecutors racists if not secretly Klansmen.
But the persistent racism we're seeing rearing its pointy head since
the election of Barack Obama in 2008 goes several steps further than
even Lee's pitiless probity ever envisioned or anticipated. With the
street executions of Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Eric
Garner, Trayvon Martin and all too many others, juries and grand juries
refuse to indict policemen or police groupies like George Zimmerman. And
instead of being charged with crimes they didn't commit, more and more
innocent black males are being charged with crimes and even bad behavior
when they weren't even the defendants (usually because they were dead).
Instead of ropes, we're now using strings of binary on Twitter,
Facebook and blogs to lynch black males (and, in some cases, even black
women) long after they've been laid in their graves or sent to prison.
Meanwhile, we're also treated to the news of white privileged males
getting off scot free after killing four people in a stolen vehicle
while under the influence with the bottomlessly absurd defense of "Affluenza
Scout Finch may return to her southern roots mystified by her heroic
father's motives for risking everything to save a man he never knew in
the real world as well as by the twisted ugliness of those roots. But
she'd be even more mystified by a 21st century United States that's
actually come full circle and, in some ways, has gotten even more racist
and vicious than the Alabama of the Great Depression. So, yes, Go Set a Watchman may yet teach us some lessons in racial harmony, however unheeded, six decades after Lee had written it.
You go, old girl.