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Mockingbird, Inc.

Harper Lee’s juvenilia sprouts a literary industry

Silver Screen Collection/Getty

When it was announced in February that a “newly discovered” Harper Lee novel was soon to be published, there followed the expected gale of media giddiness, the widespread convulsions of joy, a gyrating and ejaculating all across the web. Pulling up alongside the jubilant ones were the judicious ones, those who questioned how the publication of Lee’s new-old novel, Go Set a Watchman, came to pass: how the publicity-shyest author on earth, she who resolved never to publish another novel after her spirit was jolted by the galactic success of her debut, she who fled Manhattan half of every year for the asylum of her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, how this monastically private writer agreed—in her eighty-ninth year, post-stroke, confined to an assisted-living establishment—to bless the reading world with what was the first, failed draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. During the initial sortie of coverage in February, a Newsweek headline bellowed "Friends Say Harper Lee Was Manipulated," but you didn’t need that deflating headline or any other because you already had those unignorable inner murmurs—they were your conscience saying that something is rotten in Monroeville.

On February 3, HarperCollins posted a press release that relayed how Ms. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, had recently discovered the manuscript “in a secure location.” There’s also a statement attributed to Ms. Lee that reads, in part: “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

Those crafty touches—“much thought and hesitation,” “my dear friend,” “people I trust”—are trying a tad too hard, wouldn’t you say? The spotlight-shunning Lee is “amazed” that she will once again be subjected to a freshet of attention, the very soaking she’d organized her life to avoid. The only thing amazing here is the expectation that literate people would be hoodwinked by attributed language that bears the unmistakable hallmarks of subterfuge.

In HarperCollins’s press release, Michael Morrison, whose title is the dizzying caravan “President and Publisher of Harper-Collins U.S. General Books Group and Canada,” believes, in lines that manage to be both tautological and cliché-sodden, that Watchman is “a brilliant book” and a “masterpiece” that “will be revered for generations to come.” Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, believes that Watchman “is a remarkable literary event,” although he obviously means publishing event: big difference. In early June, Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp., the parent company of HarperCollins, dubbed Watchman a “fascinating, captivating, important book”—I bet he did—and then added: “It’s the most preordered book in HarperCollins’s history,” a non sequitur to anyone but a CEO of a global corporation. Listening to businessmen hold forth about literature constitutes a rare kind of comedy.

Harper Lee appears to have had only the most marginal input on the publication of the book that will bear her name. The New York Times reported that Burnham “had never spoken directly to Ms. Lee about the book and had communicated solely through her lawyer, Ms. Carter, and her literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg.” The lawyer-agent pas de deux: Speaking solely to them and not once to the author of the book he was buying is rather like consulting the egrets while ignoring the hippo. Burnham also said that he was “completely confident” that Ms. Lee had consented to the publication of Watchman—of course he was. Consulting the novelist “wasn’t necessary,” he said, and you see why the presidential wings of corporations continue to enjoy such glowing reputations. Writes the Times: “The statement Ms. Lee provided expressing her delight that the new novel will finally be published was delivered through her lawyer, Mr. Burnham said.” That lawyer again.

Will finally be published. Novelists don’t forget the larval stages of their books—they are usually bad enough to brand themselves onto memory. If Lee had wanted the world to hold Watchman, she had decades of good health in which to unearth it from whatever bottom drawer she’d buried it in, and if she’d thought it lost, all she had to do was look.

On July 2, the Times compromised the official party line with ripe information about Watchman and Carter. In February, Carter had told the Times that she “was so stunned” by the discovery she’d just made, but, as the Times reported:

The discovery may have happened years earlier, in October 2011, when Justin Caldwell, a rare books expert from Sotheby’s auction house, flew to Alabama to meet with Ms. Carter and Samuel Pinkus, then Ms. Lee’s literary agent, to appraise a Mockingbird manuscript for insurance and other purposes.

That inspection happened in a bank—fitting when you consider the cash that was going to be made by what everyone saw in that vault.

The Times reported Carter’s claim that she didn’t see anything and was “sent from the room to run an errand before review of any of the materials occurred.” Both Pinkus and Caldwell affirm that Carter was indeed there when they found Watchman in 2011, according to the Times. HarperCollins responded by saying that the company believed Carter’s version of events—of course it does. It has millions of reasons to believe it. About the Sotheby’s visit in 2011, Carter has “declined to answer additional questions”—of course she has.

Harper Lee, circa 1950.
Michael Brown/HarperCollins

If Ms. Lee had in sound mind consented to the publication of Watchman, speculated the Times, it would mean “an abrupt turnaround for an author who had said she did not intend to publish another work and then, late in life, agreed to venture out with a book that had initially been dismissed as an ambitious but disjointed first draft.” Abrupt turnaround is one way to put it, I suppose, and that use of “late in life” might be courteous, but it rather deemphasizes what we’re talking about here: an octogenarian about to turn nonagenarian, post-stroke, who, by her own sister’s admission, cannot see or hear. (Alice Lee, the counsel and caretaker who steadfastly bodyguarded her sister’s interests, died just three months before the announcement of Watchman.) In April, functionaries in Alabama found Lee capable of making her own publishing decisions, but regarding the competence and incorruptibility of functionaries, you might want to call upon your own experience with them.

In a shady, bad-faith move, HarperCollins placed “the strictest of embargoes” on Watchman: With a few exceptions—cherry-picked, one guesses, for the safety of their pedestrianism—the publisher wouldn’t release advanced copies to the critical community. Strictest of embargoes? Are we talking about a book here, or plutonium? They’ll no doubt maintain that they didn’t want the book to leak online before publication, but no publisher wants any book to leak online before publication.

So as the lot of us waited, with the rest of the world, until the July 14 release date, there seemed little else to do but return to the novel upon which the current commotion depends. It hasn’t happened often, but when an American novel becomes a beloved cultural institution, and you wish to reread the novel afresh, unhindered by the easy familiarity of that institution, then you somehow must shut out the choric approval while mustering a fairly potent state of amnesia. It helps if you’ve never seen the Oscar-earning film or the stage production, as I haven’t, and if you didn’t register your middle-school teacher’s well-meaning but puerile pronouncements, as I didn’t.

Just how good is To Kill a Mockingbird?

You know about the plot, the two-part architecture: the Wordsworthian childhood sublime of Scout, Jem, and Dill, their summertime beguilement by Boo Radley; followed by Atticus Finch’s defense of the wrongly accused black man, Tom Robinson. And you know about the rabid popularity: the novel’s pervasiveness in American middle and high schools, its still robust yearly sales figures, the manifold efforts to ban it—efforts that always achieve the inverse effect.

The narration of Mockingbird belongs to the adult Jean Louise; the eyes, however, belong wholly to the child Scout. Jean Louise Finch is consistently shrewd: “I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergy-men”—with that sentence and others, you see you aren’t dealing with an obedient and blindly pious Southern woman. And Scout: the ceaseless charisma and comedic lean of that little girl. I imagine every reader must have his Scout moment, the paragraph or line in which she does or says something after which he is helplessly hers: He’ll follow her not only to the end of her book but to the end of the earth. For me it happens in chapter seven (a bit later than most, maybe): “The second grade was grim.”

Illustration by Melinda Josie

An unsigned Time magazine review in 1960 saw that “Lee’s prose has an edge that cuts through cant,” and that’s well put. Mockingbird is rich with fluvial prose: “The night-crawlers had retired, but ripe chinaberries drummed on the roof when the wind stirred, and the darkness was desolate with the barking of distant dogs.” See the expertly placed and surprising adverb here: “The remains of a picket drunkenly guarded the front yard.” Notice the melic rhythm of this line: “We bounded down the sidewalk on a spree of sheer relief, leaping and howling.” For a novel of almost 400 pages, it’s blessedly inoculated against common prose germs. There is only the occasional cough of cliché: “snow white,” “ramrod straight,” “blaze of glory.” As some novelists know better than others, keeping paragraphs free of knee-jerk jargon and toneless formulations is the work of round-the-clock vigilance, and Harper Lee has always deserved more applause for the stride of her style.

You won’t find much literary comment on Mockingbird, and what does exist doesn’t much care about how Lee carpenters her prose. A smattering of early critics and reviewers were irked by the plot’s bifurcation. The New York Herald Tribune complained: “The charm and wistful humor of the childhood recollections do not foreshadow the deeper, harsher note which pervades the later pages of the book.” That goes out of its way to miss the point, since the first act of the novel is the crucial imaginative prelude to the moral reckoning of the second act: The childhood sublime must be celebrated if its later defacing by adulthood horrors, its asphyxiation by injustice and race hatred, is to have any effect.

Since the appearance of Mockingbird in 1960, some have had a hard time taking it seriously. In a letter to a friend in October of that year, Flannery O’Connor had this to say: “For a child’s book it does all right. It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a child’s book.” I’m loath ever to be at odds with Ms. O’Connor, but I’ve got to say: Those lines hit my ear as distinctly bitter. The one word that shows her hand? Buying.

Those most qualified to comment upon Mockingbird chose not to do so. James Baldwin lived 27 more years after Mockingbird was published, and nowhere in his collected essays or in any interview I could find does he see fit even to mention it. Ralph Ellison lived another 34 years after Mockingbird was published, and nowhere in all 900 pages of his collected essays does he see fit to mention it either. Likewise in Edmund Wilson’s final journal—not a peep. In fact, upon the novel’s publication and in the ensuing decades, the best American critical minds seemed not to know that it existed—Granville Hicks, at one time a relevant critic, gave it three short paragraphs in the Saturday Review, and in the 1990s, Harold Bloom penned an abbreviated introduction. Even John Updike, who in six dreadnoughts and one slimmer volume of literary criticism hardly leaves a necessary book untouched, says nothing of it. Truman Capote’s endorsement of his friend’s book read: “Someone rare has written this very fine first novel, a writer with the liveliest sense of life, and the warmest, most authentic humor. A touching book, and so funny, so likable”—a somewhat neutered statement for Capote, redundant if true, and perhaps worth as much as any blurb.

In 1966, a scholar with the unimprovable name of W.J. Stuckey impugned Lee for Mockingbird’s mobilizing of the child’s perspective in an adult’s language, tagging it a “rhetorical trick,” which gives those two terms quite a workout. “Whenever she gets into difficulties with one point of view,” wrote Stuckey, “she switches to the other”—but the point of view doesn’t switch, not in the way Stuckey suggests. As in the early books of Wordsworth’s Prelude, where the child’s vista is crooned in a poet’s tongue, the sophisticated Jean Louise Finch is free to summon and animate the Scout who breathes in her still. I don’t claim that as the ideal execution for a novel, nor that the liabilities of doing so aren’t legion, only that Lee’s method is consistent: There’s no clumsy juggling of the sort Stuckey perceives.

His suspicion is warranted but his diagnosis is wrong: One great flaw of Mockingbird is not an inconsistent point of view, but the fact that Scout can’t be the moral agent of her own story, an honor which goes to her father. That remains one of the pestering inevitabilities of the child-as-protagonist: Morality isn’t yet fully codified because apprehension and language are both constricted, which is precisely why so many child narrators must be cast as prodigies of verbiage and perception.

Scout isn’t cast as that—she’s not a child narrator and she’s not a prodigy. She’s an astute kid who can often apprehend the world’s oscillation from beauty to injustice and back again, but the deepest seeing comes from the adult Jean Louise Finch: It is she who narrates Mockingbird, not her girlhood self, even though that girlhood self is the plot’s kindly tyrant. Bloom puts it this way: “The crises of [Scout’s] book confirm her in her intrinsic strength and goodness, without wounding her sensibility or modifying her view of reality”—there’s the crux of the problem, and a problem not limited to Scout.

In 1957, the title of the book suggested by Lee’s first agent was Atticus, and you have no trouble seeing why: The portrait of Atticus Finch is a hymn of love to Harper Lee’s father, an attorney who in 1919 tried unsuccessfully to defend two black men from charges of murder. If Atticus strikes you as bloodless and wooden, that’s because he’s mostly a walking soapbox for moralistic bromides, incapable of talking to anyone without unburdening himself of some principled platitude. (Stuckey refers to the novel’s “simplistic moral,” to its being “self-consciously cute.”) It’s true that Atticus snaps to life in the courtroom while defending Tom Robinson—and it’s thrilling to watch him work on behalf of truth, even when you know the truth won’t matter—but that’s because the courtroom presents the perfect forum for his naturally grand exhortations.

The book’s superego, Atticus contains equal parts preternatural tolerance and rigid composure; he’s always hyperaware of showing his children all the upstanding ways to behave. Ever sunny toward the organic goodness of humanity—and ever Christic: “I do my best to love everybody,” he tells Scout—Atticus never suspects that his true moral duty might be to marshal an intolerance of intolerance. The day after Scout disperses the lynch mob on the steps of the jail, Atticus tells her and Jem that the leader, Mr. Cunningham, is “basically a good man … he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.” That good man was about to murder an innocent human being—that’s quite a blind spot. The socially awakened Jem doesn’t let his father get away with such poltroon babble: “Don’t call that a blind spot,” he says. “He’da killed you last night.”

A vigilante and a bigot, Mr. Cunningham is not a good man, and Atticus’s refusal to say so, his refusal to acknowledge how the cretinous turn murderous, amounts to something of an intellectual crime. He has all the right motions of the principled man but none of the fed-up disgust required to assault the toxic tropisms of an entire segment of our society. His courage is laudable—and never more so than on the steps of the jail when he blocks the lynch mob from reaching Tom Robinson—but without the stamina of a mobilizing conviction, courage counts for little, a mere gesture. This is part of what Mark Twain means by: “We all live in the protection of certain cowardices which we call our principles.” If there’s such a thing as a passive martyr, Atticus is it.

Scout is frequently coupled with Huckleberry Finn—Twain’s influence on Lee was paramount—but look instead at Atticus and Huck, because Atticus is the moral nucleus of Mockingbird just as Huck is of his story. Huck’s decision not to give up the slave Jim to the authorities, and to consign himself to hellfire as a result, is the transformative moment in American consciousness: After that display of mercy, of moral fearlessness, nothing can ever be the same. So if it’s morally feel-good fiction we’re looking for, you’d think we could do no better than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But we don’t have the same sentimental attachment to Twain’s nation-shaking novel as we do to Mockingbird for the simple reason that Twain’s book isn’t sentimental. What Huck does takes much more courage than what Atticus does: Huck puts his own freedom in jeopardy—Atticus just follows his assignment. “Every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally,” he tells Scout. “This one’s mine, I guess.” Well, all right—but being affected is the least one should expect. Where are the spiritual upheavals of this man, the vital defilements of his composure?

Huckleberry Finn isn’t feel-good because it demands action of us: It petitions us for sacrifice, and the typical American would rather not consider that. Mockingbird, meanwhile, doesn’t ask us for anything so lofty: Just sit back and be charmed by that little girl, be pleased by the rectitude of her father. Loving and lauding Mockingbird assuages our self-blame, and in doing so, absolves us of responsibility. It feels downright correct to cherish this novel—it feels, come to think of it, rather like an honest day’s work. It performs its magic first by suctioning itself to your own nostalgia and then by satisfying your limp conscience: As long as there are Atticuses in the world, all will be well, and you yourself can remain recumbent. We Americans prefer our morality reductive, and so the easily sloganized ethics of Mockingbird were and remain palatable for millions.

“Murder,” wrote Graham Greene, “if you are going to treat it seriously at all, is a religious subject,” and what are we talking about at the hub of Mockingbird if not murder? I’ve never believed that Tom Robinson was killed trying to escape from the prison yard. Seventeen bullet wounds aren’t needed to keep a man from climbing a fence. “They didn’t have to shoot him that much,” Atticus says, but he undergoes no religious quandary, no spiritual attrition, no weakening of his selfhood: He’s dutifully upright and, in the end, perfectly acquiescent. Toni Morrison dismissed the novel as a “white savior” story, except that Atticus fails at saving Tom Robinson.

Jean Louise Finch says: “In the secret courts of men’s hearts Atticus had no case. Tom was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed”—but those secret inner courts aren’t so secret. When Mr. Raymond, the town’s pretend drunk, appears outside the courthouse with the children, he speaks of “the hell white people give colored folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people, too.” And after the trial, Atticus tell his children this: “There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads—they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.”

As we had to witness recently with George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and with Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, those ugly facts from the 1930s have proven their loathsome durability, except in those cases we didn’t have the words of the black men (boys, really) because they’d been shot dead. Go Set a Watchman is being published during a summer when the wounds of Ferguson still suppurate, when the city of Chicago is a weekly hecatomb, when ashes still darken the air of Baltimore, when a South Carolina police officer awaits trial for the on-camera killing of Walter Scott.

It took an imbecilic warp (I will not utter his name) assassinating nine peaceful human beings at a church in Charleston in June for South Carolina’s leaders to sprout a conscience and pack up an omnibigoted and insurrectionist flag—a nauseating cost. That butcher, by the way, repeated the same inherited and scurrilous falsehood that dooms Tom Robinson in Mockingbird: “You rape our women,” he reportedly said before opening fire. In the aftermath of the Charleston disaster, we saw, as we’ve seen again and again across history, the coming together of the decent and the loving and the determined—we saw that the depths to which the depraved can sink will always be outshone by the heights to which the humane can rise.

Near the end of Mockingbird, in a line that reveals what she’s known all along, Scout tells her brother: “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” And Jem says: “I think I’m beginning to understand why Boo Radley’s stayed shut up in the house all this time … it’s because he wants to stay inside”—because it’s hard to be alive, because the world is both too hideous and too sublime for a soul that sensitive.

When Hemingway’s unfinished novel True at First Light was published in 1999, we saw a brood of editorials and essays about the ethics of publishing it, about what the author might think of the tarnishing caused by a lusterless draft he wouldn’t have let anyone glimpse. Some Hemingway disciples were irked and hurt on behalf of the once heroic craftsman, but that irk and hurt seem somewhat mirthful when you compare it to what crowds of readers felt this summer on behalf of Harper Lee. Hemingway had been dead nearly four decades when True at First Light appeared—Harper Lee is still alive.

According to Charles J. Shields’s biography, in January of 1957, Lee went to see her agent, Maurice Crain, with “the first 50 pages of a novel, Go Set a Watchman.”

A week later, she was back again, this time with a hundred more pages. From then on, she dropped off about 50 new pages with Crain every week through the end of February. Two months of back-and-forth revisions followed between author and agent until, in early May, Crain judged that the manuscript was in suitable shape to send out. But he had never liked the title Go Set a Watchman.

 Crain sent the book to the publisher J.P. Lippincott. Tay Hohoff, the editor, later said of that draft: “It was more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel,” but she was interested enough to give Lee a contract. After Lee rewrote the book based on Hohoff’s suggestions, the next draft “was better. It wasn’t right. … There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity.” It then took another two and a half years to make what we know now as To Kill a Mockingbird.

That “series of anecdotes” with the “dangling threads of plot” and “lack of unity”? That’s the book the world is reading this summer. In a conscious confusion of purity for quality, HarperCollins boasted that they were publishing Watchman unedited—as if they could have done anything else, short of rewriting it themselves: The author cannot see or hear.

The story is slender: Jean Louise Finch, now 26 years old and living in New York, trains home to Maycomb, Alabama, to visit her ailing, 72-year-old father, Atticus Finch, and her childhood love and maybe future husband, Henry (Hank) Clinton. Her brother, Jem, so beloved by readers of Mockingbird, has died of the same heart calamity that felled their mother. There follow sedating, brochurelike stretches about the history of the county and the town, and numbing banter between Jean Louise and her Aunt Alexandra.

Then Jean Louise finds a booklet on her father’s lamp table, The Black Plague, the cover of which shows a drawing of “an anthropophagous Negro.” Incensed, she rushes off to the courthouse where Atticus and Henry are taking part in a citizens’ council meeting. Hidden in the balcony—you’ll be reminded of how the children sat in that very balcony in Mockingbird—she eavesdrops on a cataract of white-power propaganda, of which her father and sweetheart seem to approve. She then spends the rest of the book obnoxiously outraged, flitting about with the affectations of an adolescent who’s just discovered the idealism of social justice.

Just as she’s about to leave town for good, her Uncle Jack backhands her in the mouth and feeds her whiskey, and this, against everything you know about human behavior, brings Jean Louise straight back to her senses. After an epic unloading of casuistry by both her father and her Uncle Jack, Jean Louise appears to accept that Maycomb’s new white-on-black animus isn’t really bigotry, just (white) citizens rightly concerned about their own heritage and not keen on Washington or the NAACP meddling in their self-governance. If you could further pollute Donald Trump with the blather of Ayn Rand, you’d have someone who looks a lot like the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman.

Ponderous and lurching, haltingly confected, the novel plods along in search of a plot, tranquilizes you with vast fallow patches, with onslaughts of cliché and dialogue made of pamphleteering monologue or else eye-rolling chitchat. You are confronted by entire pages of her Uncle Jack’s oracular prattle, and you must machete through the bracken of listless, throwaway prose in order to get to a memorable turn of phrase. “Jean Louise smiled to herself” and “Jean Louise laughed aloud” and then “Jean Louise shook her head.” Someone has “green envy,” and someone else “worked night and day,” while someone “dropped dead in his tracks.” Soon, “Henry looked at her,” and then “she looked at him,” and then “Hank stirred” before “she stirred.” Characters “raise” their “eyebrows” so often you have to question how their foreheads turned into trampolines. When Jean Louise gets upset, which is always, her “throat tightens,” and you wonder how she breathes through such frequent esophageal constriction. Some good prose survived the voyage from Watchman to Mockingbird—Aunt Alexandra’s corset “drew up her bosom to giddy heights”—and you turn pages praying to find more of it. Those prayers, like all prayers, aren’t answered.

For once, none of those flaws in the novel can be blamed on the author: She was learning how to write when she composed Watchman and wasn’t able to ready this draft for publication. In the two and a half years it took her to turn this mess into To Kill a Mockingbird, she evolved beautifully as a stylist and storyteller, helped along by an astute editor. It’s impossible to believe that a sound Harper Lee wished for this thing to be published, impossible to believe that her sister-protector, Alice Lee, would have allowed it to happen. This befouling book does not come close to meeting the immoderate predictions of its publisher (a “masterpiece” that “will be revered for generations to come”). It should have been permitted to retain its quiet dignity boxed in the author’s archives. The manuscript might have been mildly nourishing for future tweeds in search of tenure, but it should never have been expensively packaged, gaudily hyped, and unscrupulously employed as chum to lure lovers of Mockingbird.

The challenge for a white author with a racial subject is to be on the side of truth while skirting the exploitation of stereotype—and in both Mockingbird and Watchman, Lee’s response to that challenge isn’t always applaudable: Her stereotypes can be white when they aren’t black. What Bloom said of Mockingbird cannot be said of Watchman: “The book is refreshingly free of ideologies and of the need to revise history to suit some particular politics of the spirit.” Watchman contains no moment that can match the tremendous affection, the familiarity and inevitability of when in Mockingbird Scout is at last able to say to her mysterious neighbor: “Hey, Boo.” Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in “the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present,” as Percy Shelley put it in a different context. And futurity, I’m certain, will forgive Go Set a Watchman. I’m not at all certain that it will forgive those who conspired to sell it to us.