Sure, you’re a fictional character. But for me, along with millions of your fans, you’re as real as my family or BFFs. Harper Lee’s iconic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” is told from your perspective as a young child and as an adult looking back on your childhood in the 1930s in Maycomb, Ala.
Since its publication in 1960, Mockingbird has been our moral compass from the 1960s Civil Rights era to our time of Ferguson and Freddie Gray. So many of us wish our fathers were like your Dad, Atticus, a lawyer. He let you call him by his first name and be a tomboy, and, a white man in the rural South in the Depression, defended a black man falsely accused of rape.
I’d wager every book I own that you grew up to be a writer. As a writer, you’ll understand why many of us are vexed. Our vexation concerns “Go Set a Watchman,” a “new” novel by Harper Lee released last month. Scout, in Watchman, set in the 1950s, you’re a 26-year-old woman living in New York. You visit Maycomb. There, you discover that Atticus was a Ku Klux Klan member when he was young. You learn that now, he belongs to a White Citizens Council – a pseudo respectable white supremacist group. Though Atticus has defended a black man wrongly accused of rape, he rants against black people.
“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Atticus says. “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”
Scout, like us readers, you’re appalled by Atticus’s racism. This newly found racism in Atticus, an otherwise kind and ethical man, is deplorable. As some critics have said, this painful discovery forces we who are white to confront the spectrum of racism – from overt to unconscious – embedded within ourselves. Yet, as a writer, Scout, I can’t help but think that the release of Watchman wasn’t a good thing.
I don’t know how I missed it, but I’d never read Mockingbird until now. Like so many from civil rights leader Andrew Young to Oprah Winfrey to writer Anna Quindlen, I read it in one gulp – moved by its story, intelligence and moral decency. As a queer woman poet, I loved it that you were a gender nonconforming tomboy with a gift for sass and gab. I wish I’d met you as a Southern N.J. pre-teen and teen who didn’t want to be girlie.
Scout, I wish you were here to suss this out. Watchman’s release doesn’t pass the smell test. The writing in it is, at worst, bad — mediocre at best. It reads like a draft. As book critic Maureen Corrigan said on “Fresh Air,” Watchman “is a troubling confusion of a novel … One could say, as some commentators already have, that Atticus here display layers of contradictory attitudes about race but this Atticus is different in kind, not just degree: He’s like Ahab turned into a whale lover.”
Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor, described Watchman as “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel,” when she read the manuscript in 1957. Hohoff worked closely with Lee as Watchman became Mockingbird.
Harper publisher Jonathan Burnham insisted to NPR that Watchman isn’t a draft. He said Watchman is a different novel from Mockingbird, published “largely unedited” as Lee wished. I find this hard to believe. I asked my publisher Clarinda Harriss, director of BrickHouse Books, if she’d ever release an author’s work, no matter how famous the writer, unedited. “No, ESPECIALLY if an author requested no editing,” Harriss told me. “That would be a red flag of major proportions.”
Scout, I, like most writers, would rather die than have an unedited draft of our work released as a new book. Watchman, like the proverbial Genie, can’t be put back in the bottle. That having been said, nothing could be better for our country than if Watchman brings us back to Mockingbird. Though set more than 70 years ago in a small southern town, the issues of race and moral decency in Mockingbird couldn’t be more current for our time.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.