Stop the presses. Rocking the literary world, Harper Lee, celebrated novelist of To Kill a Mockingbird announced on Tuesday, that she is, at long last, publishing a sequel.
The fiercely private and elusive author has hardly been heard from since performing the literary equivalent of a mic drop over fifty-five years ago. She published one masterpiece, won a Pulitzer, and walked away. Under the immense pressure of her first success, Lee suffered from decades-long writer’s block. Knowing her second novel would forever be compared to her first, she decided not to bother. She lived for a time in New York City. Eventually, though, she returned home to her small, Southern town of Monroeville, Alabama, the real-life inspiration behind her book.
To Kill a Mockingbird has since become a mainstay on middle school reading lists the world over, both resented and loved by generations of pre-teens. Go Set a Watchman is more its previous incarnation than it is sequel. Interestingly, although as yet unpublished, this second book was written first. It was written and submitted to a publisher who promptly rejected it.
In this manuscript, Scout’s all grown up—returning to Maycomb to visit her aging father during the upheaval of mid-1950s America. The original publisher who read the script for Go Set a Watchman back in the mid 1950s enjoyed the flashbacks of Scout as a young child so much that, in a moment of insight, he instructed Lee to go home and rewrite the manuscript, entirely from the perspective of Scout as a child; in this severe reframing, To Kill a Mockingbird was born. Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, stumbled upon the original manuscript—which was assumed to be lost—when she was checking on the incredibly valuable original manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird.
A quick search on Amazon reveals that Go Set a Watchman, still five months out from its July release, has already skyrocketed to the number one best seller in books. Amazon is billing it “as a magnificent novel in its own right.”
Harper Lee would surely be pleased to hear the praise that people are heaping upon this new release. Reclusive as ever, she spends her days in an assisted living facility in Monroeville—which brings us to the controversy surrounding this novel. Lee’s health is failing; she is nearly blind, profoundly deaf, and has suffered a string of strokes that have left her wheelchair-bound. With a string of characters, plotlines, and shifting motives, the conspiracies brewing around this latest publication are so complex that Harper Lee herself might have had trouble dreaming some of them up.
Much of this fierce debate centers on the extent to which Lee is able to express her interests in her present condition. The fears seem reasonable, considering that Lee had declared publicly for over half a century that she would never publish again. Further, her sister and lawyer, Alice Lee, who had long served as her defender and advocate in the face of the public, retired and then passed away in 2014. Since then, lawyer Tonja Carter has represented Lee. Under her counsel, Lee has authorized a surprising number of actions including granting permission for To Kill a Mockingbird to become an e-book, suing her literary agent to regain her copyright, suing the local museum in Monroeville for exploiting her trademark, and, now, publishing a sequel. Further, Harper, an imprint of the publishing house HarperCollins, has not actually spoken to Lee about the novel. All contact has been facilitated through her lawyer, a disturbing trend that has merely fanned the fire. Much of the current speculation has circled around Carter, questioning to what extent she may be manipulating the aging Lee. Expressing her joy over the publication of her new novel in a statement, given to Tonja Carter, she wrote that she is “alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman.”
What lies at the heart of this controversy, however, more than the intrigue and more than the conspiracy theories, is the desperation on the part of the readers. Many people want, so badly, for this book to be published that it doesn’t really matter how it gets to print so long as it does. Perhaps, on a primarily literary level, this speaks to the impulse that all readers, in some form or another, have. It’s the same impulse that has people lining up at the local Barnes and Noble for hours just to be the first to get their hands on a copy released at midnight. Not to mention that many read her first book when they were much younger, and few things a stronger hold on people than the books they read as children. But that is not all that is at stake here. The country is experiencing a tense moment in history on the side of race relations. People are looking for wisdom, or meaning, or something to help them puzzle through it. They figure Harper Lee did it once; perhaps she can do it again. Naïve? Possibly. But certainly not unreasonable.
This is just one of a string of controversies that has surrounded the reclusive author ever since the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird and her subsequent retreat from the public eye. The novel has been banned on and off in various school districts throughout the years due to the difficult subjects of race and rape within. That, coupled with the consistent use of racial slurs in the book has caused schools throughout the country to debate whether or not they should assign the novel to students.
More than anything, this is what makes To Kill a Mockingbird so significant. Not the controversy, not the speculations, not the publicity, but the legacy it has left by being, for many, students’ first classroom exposure to issues of racism. To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the few books that have managed to make the subject of America’s long history of racism more accessible to scores of readers. As a vehicle for generating discussions of race in the US, the novel is not perfect by any means. The reality is that Harper Lee is a white woman. The main criticism of the novel, heaped in amongst the acclaim, has always been that the novel features a white narrator and a white hero, and the story is told from the perspective of a white, economically comfortable Southern family. Tom Robinson is often regulated to the side in the larger context of the novel. The very idea that a novel about race features very few diverse characters is, of course, problematic—as is the idea that Lee is regarded as a preeminent author about racism. Because, it is in fact racism she has only ever observed and never directly experienced. Further, there are countless novels just as brilliant written by non-white authors that will never garner this much publicity or praise in American history.
It is a situation that, in many ways, is still with us today. While much of the media is saturated with the claim that we are living in a ‘post-racial America,’ the truth is that we have not come nearly as far as this term suggests. After the Michael Brown shooting, the Pew poll found that of 1,507 polled, 48 percent felt that race was not a factor at all in the case. When broken down further to account for racial difference, it found that 60 percent of whites felt that way as well. Eighty-one percent of Blacks felt the opposite: that race was a factor in the case. After the grand jury declined to indict Wilson, 64 percent of whites supported the decision, while 80 percent of African-Americans felt that the wrong decision was made. Further, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights published data showing that racial minorities are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended from school, to be taught by less qualified teachers, and have less access to rigorous classes. In terms of economic status, African-American children are three times as likely to live in poverty compared to white children. President Obama’s election may have boosted the myth of a ‘post-racial America,’ but it’s still just that: a myth.
And it is obvious that the current racial landscape of America is the site of bitter contestation. But the policies and norms that constitute modern-day racism are cloaked behind language less overt than that of Jim Crow segregation. There is a kind of perverse nostalgia for the moral clarity that was present in the America of the mid-20th century. Audiences want to read books like Go Set a Watchman because they depict a more overt racism that we are comfortable condemning. The more accepted use of aggressive racial slurs and the cruel practice of de jure segregation allow audiences to safely express outrage at obvious targets.
In Scout Finch’s town of Maycomb, Alabama, a Black man, Tom Robinson, is falsely accused of raping a white woman and is found guilty even after the lawyer Atticus Finch proves there is no way he could have done it.
The narrative is told from the perspective of Scout Finch, a young girl growing up in a small town in the Depression-era South. Her father, Atticus, is charged with defending an African-American man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a young, white girl. Robinson is, unsurprisingly given the rampant racism of the era, found guilty and thrown into jail. Later, while trying to escape from jail, is shot in the back by the officer on guard.
Tom Robinson is one fictional character, but he provides a name and a face for the scores of anonymous men who have also fallen prey to our current racist criminal justice system. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2009 non-Hispanic blacks accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total prison and jail population while only accounting for 13.2 percent of the overall American population. Continually, 90 percent of all prisoners convicted on drug charges in state prison are African-American or Latino. However, our world and Tom Robinson’s world are different. Institutionalized racism has changed its outward manifestations and ‘looks different’ than it once did.
At least in Robinson’s case one could argue that prison guards are allowed to shoot escapees. Today, we are facing an America where officers in uniform are killing Black men for even less of a ‘reason.’ The times may have changed, but this disregard for Black lives is still rampant. From Staten Island to Ferguson, it has finally being widely acknowledge by the media and white audiences that police brutality is an epidemic in America. Protests are taking place in cities and on campuses the country over. #BlackLivesMatter is frequently trending on Twitter, but one can’t help but wonder what has why something that should be obvious must be stated, screamed, fought for.
Harper Lee was born in 1926. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960; the story takes place in the early 1930s. Go Set a Watchman was written in the 1950s. It takes place in the 1950s but is being published in 2015. Watchman was written in the 1950s and then stowed away; it has not seen the light of modern times. It is being published with no further editing, untouched from when Lee first set pen to paper. And here is where the significance of it being published now, this year, lies. What will we see of the America preserved within its pages, and will Harper Lee have anything new to add to the conversation in 2015? Racism today manifests itself differently than it once did. Gone are the days of de jure segregation, Jim Crow, and violent public lynchings. Instead we have police brutality, ‘wars’ on drugs and terror, and coded language that gives an appearance of respectability to racial arguments in the political sphere. This book may not be able to remain relevant enough to navigate the world its readers now face. At worst, it will stand as a mere relic of the past. At best, it will give readers a new insight into the present. At this point, perhaps it is only fair to wait and see.
What made To Kill a Mockingbird so remarkable was not only its ability to capture a society built upon traditions of racism, but to do so through the eyes of a young child. And many of us were young children ourselves the first time we read the novel, so were, arguably, able to relate to Scout’s perspective. It was the easy reader on racism.
The last time readers saw Scout she was a child learning this lesson for the first time. Watchman, on the other hand, promises a Scout that can perhaps see her past, her father, and her town with far more maturity than she ever could as a child.
After Tom Robinson’s conviction, Atticus tries to explain to Scout what has happened: “They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it—seems that only children weep.” Well, Scout’s not a child anymore. And neither are we. And, quite frankly, neither is America. The time for the country to have learned from its mistakes is long overdue. It’s time to grow up.
DOMINIQUE PARISO B’18 has never, ever, killed a mockingbird.