'Mockingbird' still sings but it's boo to clunky, dated 'Watchman'
Harper Lee's sequel is a literary sensation, says Emily Hourican, but the novel is not a total success
Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30
It's not often we get a genuine literary sensation. We do not live in an age where avid readers throng the docks of Boston and New York, waiting for the latest Dickens instalment. Even a new Donna Tartt is only so-so sensational. And so the news that Harper Lee - author of To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the most popular novels of all time, a book that has sold some 40 million copies and is a foundation stone for the moral compass of many of those readers - was ready to publish another book, only her second, after 55 years, caused a wave of excitement. That this second book carried the same characters as Mockingbird, is the product of a manuscript written before that book, then lost for decades before a sensational rediscovery, only added fuel to a merry fire.
And then the controversy started. Nelle Harper Lee, who hasn't given an interview since 1964, choosing to live as a literary recluse (this is not the same as an actual recluse; she was perfectly out-and-about in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama) had never intended this book to be published, was one story. Now aged 89, partially blind and deaf after a stroke, she wasn't even fully aware of, or complicit in, the publishing, was another.
Then her sister, Alice (once described by Nelle as "Atticus in a skirt"), who was Harper's lawyer and staunch protector, practising until past her 100th birthday, died in November, just before the manuscript discovery. The timing seemed far too convenient.
Certainly, something seemed to stink, so much so that there was an inquiry by the Alabama Securities Commission to see if Lee was being manipulated, but it concluded that this wasn't the case. Even so, the publishers have chosen to put a quote from Harper Lee on the Watchman press release before anything else, spelling it out clearly: "I'm alive and kicking and happy as hell to be publishing Go Set A Watchman."
In all the years in which Mockingbird has been a sacred text, part of the mystique - beyond what is still an extraordinary story of good versus ignorance, told through the eyes of one of literature's most appealing characters, Scout - has been the character of Harper Lee herself.
The teenage tomboy who grew up telling stories with the boy next door, Truman Capote; who was resolute and outspoken, described as having "hell and pepper in her" by the local minister, and who after just a few years of literary celebrity, decided that she wanted nothing more to do with it, because, as she once told Oprah Winfrey: "You know the character Boo Radley? Well, if you know Boo, then you understand why I wouldn't be doing an interview. Because I am really Boo."
Lee never finished another book because, as she told her sister Alice, after Mockingbird "I haven't anywhere to go but down."
But Lee never lost her fire, or her sense of humour; in 1966, she wrote a letter in response to the attempts of a Virginia school board to ban To Kill a Mockingbird as "immoral literature", saying: "Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honour and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners . . . I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism.
"Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enrol the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice."
And she may have been wiser than she knew, judging by the response to Go Set A Watchman. The first chapter was released last Friday, five days before the finished book and the reaction was instantly angry.
"Go get an editor" sneered the first Twitter response I saw, followed by outraged variations on "this is no To Kill A Mockingbird!" The Wall Street Journal called it "a distressing book", while the BBC said: "To invest in this emotionally is a harder task."
The reaction took on a bit more measure in the intervening days, with a few voices bravely trying to say that the book has some merit.In general, reviews have been more favourable outside the United States, perhaps because distance takes some of the sting out of the great revelation at the book's heart.
Because really, what most reviewers were upset by was less the stylistic or narrative components of the novel as the alterations in the main characters. Particularly Atticus Finch.
The hero of Mockingbird, a character who has inspired lawyers and would-be lawyers across the world, Atticus, in the 25 years since the action of Mockingbird, has transmuted from the clear-cut supporter of Maycomb's black population, a man so moral and gentlemanly, so unable to do a mean or petty thing, that despite being a "nigger lover" in the eyes of the town, he still commands respect, into someone who deliberately hinders the furthering of civil rights.
He says to Scout, as she passionately upbraids him, "Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?" later adding: "So far in my experience white is white and black's black. So far, I've not heard an argument that's convinced me otherwise."
As much as Scout wants to crawl away somewhere and howl when she hears him say this, so do all of us.
"Mockingbird suggested that we should have compassion for outsiders like Boo and Tom Robinson, while Watchman asks us to have understanding for a bigot named Atticus," was the New York Times's take on this.
The fact that some critics have previously dismissed Atticus as too good, "a plaster saint", and that this is a far more nuanced portrait of a Southern lawyer and gentleman, is clearly beside the point for the many who feel personally betrayed.
Atticus tainted by bigotry is certainly hard to take. But so is a grown-up Scout, who lacks the charm of her childish self. The years have added stridency and a touch of bitterness to the hot-tempered, injustice-hating kid. On top of that, one of the major characters in Mockingbird is dead, a fact that is mentioned almost casually in passing in chapter one.
Watchman feels dated in a way that Mockingbird still does not, and not just because of the unpalatable casual references to "niggers" and "Negroes" - Mockingbird has these too, and they still jar, but the story manages to transcend that. Watchman has insufficient story. Beyond Scout wrestling with the changes in her hometown, and her own ambiguous reaction to a place she both loves and hates, nothing much happens here.
The book relies too much on polemical exchanges between the main characters, and on a close understanding of American constitutional politics of the 1950s. It's not that the central themes are no longer current - there is still racism and prejudice in American life to be challenged - but in Watchman, the exploration of these themes, unlike Mockingbird, is clunky and dated.
However, where the book does strike an unexpectedly contemporary chord is in its treatment of the genesis and character of the South, how separate this is to the rest of the United States, and how little the South wishes to brook any kind of Federal interference.
Given the debate over the Confederate flag recently, it is fascinating to read Scout's Uncle Jack say "has it never occurred to you . . . that this territory was a separate nation? No matter what its political bonds, a nation with its own people, existing within a nation." And of the Civil War, "No war was ever fought for so many different reasons meeting in one reason clear as crystal. They fought to preserve their identity."
If Watchman was a cynical piece of publishing, then it can be counted a success so far. The book sold over 105,000 copies in the UK on the first day of release. It has been in Amazon's top 10 based on pre-orders since February, number one for several weeks in advance of publication. But curiosity is responsible for that and the triumph of hope over common sense. I doubt there is much longevity in sales of Watchman; in fact, its main virtue will be in the eyes of creative writing students - if Harper Lee could create one from the other, there is hope for anyone prepared to engage in a radical rewrite. But the millions who love Mockingbird may well be content to let this fall into obscurity.