The only thing more enduring and famous than the actual novel To Kill a Mockingbird was the fact that it was the first and only book written by Harper Lee. Until now.
A few weeks ago, Lee, whose long hibernation from publishing just reached 55 years, announced the release of her second novel, Go Set a Watchman, a sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. As widely reported, it will be published by Harper Collins later this year. As it happens, Lee penned the original manuscript for Go Set a Watchman in the late 1950s, not long before the 1960 publication of To Kill a Mockingbird dazzled the literary establishment, won a Pulitzer Prize and went on to sell some 40 million copies. Immortalized on screen, the iconic 1962 film adaptation, written by Horton Foote, earned an Oscar for Gregory Peck. The follow-up novel is set circa 1957 — some 20 years after the Depression-battered landscape of Mockingbird, and features a grown-up Scout reuniting with her father, Atticus Finch, now apparently a successful New York lawyer.
Like most American (and British) schoolchildren, I came to Mockingbird when I was 11 or 12. I was fascinated by Scout, Lee’s tomboy heroine, who is not even 10 as the novel’s events unfold, but relays the story from an adult perspective. I didn’t remember this until I happened to re-read the book last summer and experienced the pure exhilaration of such a masterful work — a joy that eluded me as an obligated middle-schooler. Apart from my favorite American novel, Mark Twain’s inimitable The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I reveled anew in Lee’s unvarnished yet evocative depiction of hardscrabble, insular Maycomb, Alabama — a stand-in for her own Alabama hometown of Monroeville, where she was both neighbor and friend of another literary giant, Truman Capote.
Yet in returning to Mockingbird, I no longer came away with simply an appreciation for Scout’s precocious wit, or the gallant protectiveness of her older brother Jem, or the marrowed moralism of Atticus, or the sensitive creepiness of Boo Radley. I was emotionally struck by Lee’s intrinsic bravery: her unstinting progressivism practically leaps off the page. Mockingbird, undoubtedly a great American novel, is set roughly 70 years after the Civil War, and in the unapologetic cradle of segregation called Jim Crow Alabama. Unlike Huckleberry Finn, which satirizes the antebellum, slavery-stained South with gimlet-eyed verisimilitude, Mockingbird is written with the sturdy simplicity of Hemingway. Here is a novel written intrepidly, hellbent on recounting a story with a wallop-packing emotional transparency. Lee was not in the business of pulling punches. It was Ernest Hemingway, after all, who said:
The writer’s job is to tell the truth.
Hemingway further explained his writing process in his memoir, A Moveable Feast:
I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.
Truth came easily and with a tincture of autobiography to Lee, who was born in 1926 in a region marinated in de jure segregation; it’s the key reason she uses racism, America’s “original sin,” as the novel’s overhang. But it was personal, too: Lee’s father was a trial lawyer who represented two African American men who were ultimately convicted and hanged. It was the final case her father ever tried, and seemingly the inspiration for Atticus Finch, Mockingbird‘s liberal, legal crusader, stalwart patriarch and one of the noblest men of modern literature.
While the second half of the novel sees the scorching trial of Tom Robinson, the African American man accused of raping a white woman, its first half sketches a gallery of eccentrics, outcasts and Southern aristocrats who populate Maycomb. Not for nothing does Lee wring delight in her depiction of Scout’s literacy as well as her common sense. Indeed, Scout’s teacher is gobsmacked that she can read at such a young age, and when I re-read this scene all these years later, I realized that Lee was skewering the stubborn anti-intellectualism of the deep South as much as the South’s invidious and precious system of racial apartheid.
For all of its themes of racism, Southern parochialism, and even class, Mockingbird is a story about courage. Lee wrote her novel concurrent to the civil rights movement, not long after Rosa Parks’ benchmark act of civil disobedience on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. But she also wrote it before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were codified into law. Courage, Atticus informs Scout, isn’t characterized by winning at all costs. It’s characterized by believing in something and adhering to that principle, win or lose:
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
Although Finch’s willingness to defend Tom Robinson fearlessly incurs the wrath of Maycomb’s denizens — Ms. Dubose, a neighbor, calls Finch a “nigger lover” quite freely — Lee’s handling of the stance of anti-racism has been criticized by some, namely Malcolm Gladwell, as timid, replete with ideas and circumstances but not nearly as iconoclastic as we think. In a 2009 essay for The New Yorker, Gladwell reminds his readers that the Alabama of the 1960s was still the Alabama of Governor George “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever” Wallace — and his police chief, Bull Connor, who famously loosed German shepherds on black protesters. Gladwell argues that Finch’s rendering was a garden-variety by-product of Southern mores, an archetypal southerner who was preternaturally charming, yet nonetheless racist:
If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks, Finch tells his daughter. ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ He is never anything but gracious to his neighbor Mrs. Dubose, even though she considers him a ‘nigger-lover.’ He forgives the townsfolk of Maycomb for the same reason. They are suffering from a ‘sickness,’ he tells Scout — the inability to see a black man as a real person. All men, he believes, are just alike.
But Gladwell misses the point. Great literature, or any great art, isn’t necessarily exact history, nor should it be. Nor am I convinced by Gladwell’s re-evaluation. If anything, Lee is portraying Finch as very much the revolutionary — an attorney long beholden to an institutionally racist justice system who not only assails such established precepts, but whose own personal crusade makes the case for equality under the law. Gladwell seems to confuse Finch’s advice — being kind to one’s neighbor while challenging their fear and ignorance is hardly a mutually exclusive notion. And it’s precisely those sentiments held by Ms. Dubose and most of the townfolk which compels Finch to be all the more emboldened in Tom’s defense. He’s not apologizing at all for the dehumanization of Southern blacks. Despite his quest for justice being pretty much futile, Finch carries on, undeterred. As he tells Scout and Jem:
As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it — whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.
Lee is now 88, reportedly infirm and nearly as reclusive as another American chronicler, the late J.D. Salinger. She wrote Mockingbird less as a radical tract than a morality tale; it is far more nuanced than its seemingly simple and plainspoken themes suggest. To criticize it as too un-ironic or, worse, casually racist, is historical revisionism that strains all credulity.
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy,” Miss Maudie tells Jem. “They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” And that’s why Lee deserves not just our praise, but as we await her second novel, our gratitude for her enduring symphony.