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Monday 23 October 2017

Mockingbird sequel - To kill a masterpiece?

After a 55-year wait, Harper Lee has produced a sequel to her classic novel which still sells millions. Should we be excited, asks Maggie Armstrong

Author Nelle Harper Lee
Author Nelle Harper Lee

Maggie Armstrong

So Harper Lee is to publish a sequel to her 1960 masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. When news broke, the excitement was undercut with a note of concern.

Nelle Harper Lee will be 89 in April. She lives in care having had a stroke in 2007. She gave her last interview in 1964.

In old age, her legacy has been much embattled. In one publishing dispute, her sister and lawyer, Alice Lee, called into question her mental capacity. "Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence," she said. Alice Lee died in November, aged 103.

Harper Lee cuts a curious figure, a deeply private person while her novel was an instant sensation, winning her a Pulitzer Prize and a starry film with Gregory Peck. The latest stage adaptation comes to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in May. The book sells a million copies a year in 40 languages.

She once told Oprah Winfrey that of all the characters in Mockingbird she was Boo Radley, the recluse. She said it off the record over lunch, while declining to go on Oprah.

But Harper Lee has bounced out of the dark with a feisty statement, that she is "surprised and delighted" about the new book. It's called Go Set a Watchman and out on July 14. She says she thought it was lost. Her new publisher says the manuscript was discovered in a safe place near her home in Monroeville, Alabama, by her lawyer.

He describes her as a "self-critical" writer, which gives insight as to why the manuscript was "lost" in the first place. In her 1964 interview, she said the success of Mockingbird was "frightening" and "like being hit over the head and knocked cold". No wonder she kept this new book a secret even from her closest friends.

It turns out Watchman was written before Mockingbird. Elaine Showalter mentions it in her anthology of American women writers, A Jury of Her Peers, writing that Harper Lee's editors were "impressed, but found the book patchy and awkwardly structured, so they sent her off to rewrite it, a process that eventually took three drafts and two-and-a-half years".

That patchy draft is the manuscript we are talking about today, reworked.

All this brouhaha is a testament to the power of Mockingbird, set during the Depression in Maycomb, Alabama. A little girl, Scout Finch, describes the trial of an innocent black man for the rape of a white woman.

Its simplicity is key to its popularity, as this precocious child connects us with childhood innocence. The creation of a flesh-and-blood courageous and good man in the defence lawyer, Atticus Finch, lets a profound moral carry through without being didactic. Schoolchildren forced to read it found a fascinating introduction to law and ideas of justice and compassion. The message that nothing should be so cloaked in jargon that a child can't understand it hits in the opening quote by Charles Lamb: "Lawyers, I suppose, were children once".

In 1966, when the book was banned by schools in Virginia deeming it "immoral", Harper Lee wrote - it "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."

Half a century on, the book is still political. The shooting of black teenager Michael Brown reminds us of the deep racial divides that persist in the United States, where capital punishment is still law. In Alabama, there are currently 192 men and women on death row.

Published during the Civil Rights movement, but set 30 years before, it was reaffirming to hear a southern voice that was against racial discrimination long before Rosa Parkes and Martin Luther King.

Go Tell a Watchman takes us ahead to that movement, as Scout returns to Maycomb 20 years after the trial.

Some may begrudge the arrival of a novel which sounds awfully like the shadow of the first. But Harper Lee's name will be taken off those lists of one-novel wonders - JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard.

Why do we cherish the child's voice? That's one for the experts.

We might find an answer in Charles Lamb's essay 'The Old Benchers of the Inner Chamber', from which Harper Lee drew the quote about lawyers.

"Is the world grown up? Is childhood dead?

''Or is there not in the bosoms of the wisest and the best some of the child's heart left, to respond to its earliest enchantments?''

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