Cerith Mathias reflects on the new novel from Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman and the impact of Lee’s first novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
When I was 13, my mother gave me my first, and most treasured copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Keen to feed my teenage reading needs during the long summer holidays, she had asked Mrs Harries, a retired English teacher who lived a few doors away, for her recommendation. Though warning my Mother that I was perhaps still a little too young for some of the novel’s content, she assured her that any time given to learning the lessons of the small Deep South town of Maycomb was time well spent. And that was that.
When enough years had gone by for us to discuss with objectivity and humour my mother’s many other ‘nudges’ during my teenage years, often not as welcome as that summertime gesture, we both agreed that neither of us could have known then the enduring impact of that gift.
I remember curling up in our bottle green garden swing and drinking down those lyrical, lilting sentences – repeating them out loud, over and over again in a poor attempt at the Southern vernacular of their scripting. Alien and other – who or what exactly was a chiffarobe? yet also oddly familiar; the hijinks of Jem, Dill and Scout almost a continuation in my mind of Huck and Tom’s mischief that my father had read aloud to me as a child. And Scout! Brave, boisterous, clever Scout – written just how girls should be.
Beyond that summer, my visits to Maycomb’s dusty, sun-scorched streets have been numerous. We read the book in school, where the prejudice and injustice suffered by many of the town’s citizens became more apparent to me. The book shifted from one of childhood adventures and neighbourhood spook-stories to one that helped shape my moral conscience – giving me perhaps my first inkling of how and who I’d like to be in the world.
At university, when a friend left her copy in my room, I didn’t hesitate to re-join the Finches and Cal, to once again marvel at the finely-crafted effectiveness of Miss Lee’s prose. Years later, as my mother’s cancer upped its malignant efforts to steal her away, Mockingbird was re-released with new cover art. She and I re-read it in tandem during our final summer holiday together.
For me, Mockingbird also opened a gateway to the riches of the Southern literary landscape. I peered over Jem and Scout’s garden fence, to find that Dill, the ‘pocket Merlin, whose head teamed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies’, had grown up to become Truman Capote and that Harper Lee’s childhood neighbour and companion had his own tall tales to tell. From Maycomb, I hitched a ride through the small sun-bleached towns of Carson McCullers’ Georgia; travelling further to the lonely vastness and decaying decadence of Tennessee Williams’ Mississippi delta, and still onwards to Yoknapatawpha, Faulkner’s ‘postage stamp of native soil.’
Thanks to Mockingbird, the first time my feet actually made contact with the land below the Mason-Dixon line, it felt like coming home.
Harper Lee herself also held my fascination. I found her silence utterly compelling. Her famed response of “Hell, no!” to any interview request, her reluctance to pore over the meaning and messages of, what was then, her only published novel made her words bigger, louder and more important somehow. Just like her reclusive Boo Radley, Lee had dipped into the shadows, watching the world, I liked to think, from behind a twitching curtain waiting for something to catch her eye. And, like Boo had, I hoped she’d come out, just once more.
It’s close to a quarter of a century since my first introduction to the characters of Mockingbird, as I step from my hire-car into the sweltering sunshine beating mercilessly down on the small, middle-of-no-where town of Monroeville, Alabama: home of Harper Lee, and the real-life Maycomb.
Squinting through the fingers of my upheld hand that is ineffectively acting as a barrier to the blinding sunlight bouncing off the gleaming white walls of the Old Monroe County Courthouse I’m surprised at how quiet the streets are. Other than me and a jolly-looking couple making their way into the haven of cool air provided by the post- office’s A.C. unit, the town square is deserted. An unexpectedly quiet start to what’s being touted in the media that morning as the literary event of the decade – the publication of Harper Lee’s new/old book Go Set a Watchman, taking place tonight at midnight.
“The courthouse is closed on a Monday ma’am,” the man heading for the post-office calls out in a friendly sing-song as I start towards the tall, heavy looking doors.
“Even today?” I ask, a little surprised, “With all the excitement over the new book, I thought perhaps there would be more people here.”
“Well, yes, ma’am,” he replies after a pause, elongating his words, as if to help me understand; “That’s because today’s Monday. The book is out tomorrow – that’s Tuesday.”
Since the shock announcement back in February of Lee’s first novel in 55 years, fans of her Pulitzer Prize-winning, multi-million copy-selling To Kill a Mockingbird have been waiting for July 14th, 2015 with impatient anticipation. The news however, has not been without controversy; speculation over the circumstances leading up to the decision to publish has been rife. The timing, deemed as highly suspicious by many, who claim that Lee, left vulnerable by stroke in 2007 and by the loss of her life-long protector, her sister Miss Alice, who died last year at the age of 103, is being exploited. The allegations, though refuted by a state investigation into elder abuse, still persist.
A fresh furore in the newspapers that weekend over revelations of the much-changed nature of one of Lee’s most beloved characters, lawyer-hero Atticus Finch, has done little to soothe niggling worries over the value of releasing what was essentially Lee’s first stab at setting out the tale of a small Alabama town, struggling with life within the confines of the Jim Crow segregated Deep South. Although set some 20 years after Atticus’ defence of Tom Robinson, rather than being a sequel to Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is its parent. Initially turned in to publisher JB Lippincott in 1957 as a tale of a young woman at odds with the often unpleasant reality of her small town upbringing, it was under the advice and nurturing of editor Tay Hohof that Lee spent the next two years re-writing and revising her novel, altering its setting to the distant enough past of depression-era Maycomb, and taking its narrator, the adult Jean Louise Finch back to her childhood days as tomboy Scout. The guidance worked.
Crossing over from the courthouse to the shade of a large magnolia tree, I notice banners hanging from buildings and posters pinned proudly in windows proclaiming ‘Monroeville loves Harper Lee’, ‘Thank You Miss Lee,’ and ‘Can’t Wait to Read Watchman.’ The local quilting shop opposite is filled with pieces of cloth adorned with the hand-sewn words ‘I Love Mockingbirds.’ Even a whisper of doubt over the new book is clearly not welcome here in the author’s hometown.
In fact, despite appearances otherwise, Monroeville has one hell of a shindig planned to celebrate its native daughter, who is referred to as “Miss Nelle” by the locals. Kicking off at midnight, with a launch party at the town’s independent book shop and picking up again the next morning with a marathon reading in perhaps 20th Century literature’s best-known courthouse, celebrations are set to continue through the day with historical talks and walking tours to see the real-life inspiration for some of Maycomb’s famous landmarks. Despite Watchman’s rocky introduction to the world, even old Mrs Dubose’s snake-like meanness couldn’t have kept me away.
“The response has been amazing and people started ordering from us the day after the news release for Go Set a Watchman,” Spencer Madrie, owner of Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe, the host of tonight’s party tells me. Offering a certificate of Monroeville authenticity with every purchase of the book, Madrie has ordered more than 10,000 copies – though, he’s keen to point out the population of the town itself runs to fewer than 6,300 people.
“We were not at all expecting so many people to show an interest,” he says; “I’ve just had to order more tables and a food truck for the release.”
Heartened by the town’s quiet enthusiasm, but finally beaten by the relentlessness of the day’s heat, I head back to my car and drive the 5 minutes or so from the courthouse square to my home for the next two nights: one of a gaggle of chain-hotels clustered together on the main road in and out of Monroeville. As I wait to check in, the lobby is busy with the chatter of out-of-towners also here for the book – the first signs of the celebrations to come, I’m treated to an air-display by six or so mockingbirds, who are playfully dive-bombing the cotton plants in the field opposite.
By time I reach Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe at around 11.30pm, after a brief nap and supper at Radley’s Fountain Grille (incidentally the only restaurant that serves alcohol in an otherwise dry county), the lawn that slopes before the shop’s quaintly-Southern wooden porch is filled with around 300 people. String lights hang from its wooden structure, casting long shadows on the rapidly disappearing spare sections of grass. The media circus is also well and truly underway: local, national and international broadcast crews have taken up their positions, as print journalists wander through the crowd with their questions.
“Where have you travelled from this evening?”
“I’ve driven 8 hours from Arkansas to be here.”
“And what does Harper Lee mean to you?”
“Oh, I’m just crazy about her. My daughter is named Scout. She’s not with me tonight though, no.”
“Are you worried about Atticus?”
“No sir. Not one little bit. I trust Harper Lee. If she’s telling it, it needs to be told.”
Atticus Finch himself has turned out to face the rumours. He stands to the side of the crowd, tall, dark and solid in his trademark cream cotton suit, briefcase in hand, bathed in the light of constant camera flashes, as people undeterred by the headlines pose with him for photos. Gregory Peck impersonator Eric Richardson, who has travelled from Baltimore for tonight’s event does however admit he’s nervous over Atticus’ supposed volte-face.
“I’m going to write her a note,” he says “I’d really like to know how much of Atticus’ character she disclosed to Gregory Peck. How much did he know?”
As the clock ticks closer to midnight, and with the mercury still hovering in the balmy mid-80s, the crowd swells and crackles with excited anticipation. A rumour sparks in the powder-dry heat, catching and spreading through Lee’s congregation like wildfire. Was she coming out? Had our not-so-little gathering piqued her curiosity?
“I think she might come,” I hear Atticus saying to a group of middle-aged ladies from Montgomery. “She’s like Boo Radley. If something interests her, she’ll come out.”
Others in the crowd aren’t so sure.
“Phooey,” a local store owner says to no-one in particular; “Miss Nelle is deaf and blind, and she won’t be coming here.” Once certain he has our attention he goes on: “We can’t get to see her no-more. I used to go regular to the place where she lives, but only people on the list can get in now.” Some around him nod knowingly, while a well-dressed woman to my left raises her eyebrows in mock-exasperation and rasps, “Now that just aint true!”
With the pop of a champagne cork, Spencer Madrie, dressed in a tux and dickie bow-tie ushers in Watchman’s publication day as the book is finally handed out to the wilting crowd.
Around an hour later, with my copy held tightly to my chest, I wander towards the courthouse ready to make my way back to the hotel. People are strewn around the vicinity, noses planted firmly between the rough-cut pages inside the book’s glossy blue cover. As I turn my car on to South Alabama Avenue, once the location of Lee’s childhood home, knocked down back in the fifties to make way for the dated-looking ice-cream parlour that now stands in its place, I vow to stay up all night – thrilled to be once again in the company of my dear old friends. Exhaustion however dictates otherwise. I manage the first 4 chapters before sleep overwhelms me, so deep and heavy that not even the clunks and thuds of the air-conditioning system in my hotel room can disturb it.
Tuesday brings with it all the bustle and fuss I had imagined for the publication day of a new Harper Lee novel. The courthouse, once downtown Monroeville’s beating heart, now a museum dedicated mainly to Lee’s work, with a little side-room honouring the town’s other famous scribe, Truman Capote (how he would have hated being relegated to second place) is packed. People mill in and out of the courtroom, where a marathon reading of Watchman is taking place; they climb the curved wooden steps, exploring the rabbit-warren lay out of rooms carrying exhibits related to Mockingbird, Lee and her father – the inspiration for Atticus Finch, and who himself practiced law in this very building. At the top of the stairs, beyond grey double doors the famed balcony, where Scout, Dill and Jem would sneak to watch Atticus at work, hangs over several rows of wooden pews in the courtroom below.
Over at the library, the morning’s events are well under way, and I arrive just in time to hear historian, and close friend of Harper Lee, Wayne Flynt describe the author’s delight at the attention being given to Watchman. Flynt, who the night before visited Miss Nelle at the assisted-living facility where she now resides says that he took with him an inch-thick stack of reviews, articles and printouts from all over the world.
“She chortled,” he grins; “She’s absolutely delighted. I think she’s a bit overwhelmed.”
When told that news crews from across the Atlantic had pitched up outside the town’s bookstore, Flynt says Miss Lee’s response was quick: “You lie!” she had apparently exclaimed.
Watchman traces Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch’s return to her childhood home of Maycomb during the 1950s. Now living in New York, she finds the contrast between her small-town upbringing and the life she leads as a young woman in the city jarring. Repulsed by the views of ‘her own kind’ and their ‘hangover of hatred’, Jean- Louise is shaken to her very core by an apparent change in her father, who’s views seemed to have hardened against the backdrop of social-change demanded across the South by the Civil Rights Movement and the NAACP.
When Jean-Louise discovers her father’s membership of Maycomb’s White Citizen’s Council, and their pro-segregationist views, she is devastated.
‘The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her,’ Lee writes.
Many of the dedicated Atticus fans who are in town today are experiencing a similar trauma. For them, the Atticus of their childhood, forever fair, honest and just has been reduced to nothing more than “…a nasty old bigot,” a twenty-something woman named Kristin offers when I ask her about it as the morning’s talks come to a close.
“I’m a bit sad we had to find out about him,” she says, sounding genuinely choked; “but I’ll always love him.”
A collective loss of the innocence of youth Watchman may be, but according to Flynt, a necessary one, forcing readers to deal with a more complex examination of race and racism.
“Mockingbird is black and white,” he says; “The morality is a child’s morality. Go Set a Watchman is an adult’s morality.”
Indeed, within the pages of Mockingbird, people are forgiven their views, understanding and empathy is called for. Mockingbird criticises racism not the racist, a necessary message at the time of its publication in 1960, to usher in dramatic social change. Watchman however is different.
‘Why doesn’t their flesh creep?’ the adult Jean-Louise spits ‘How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in Church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up?’
In Watchman Lee is talking directly to ‘her kind’, to the white people of all the small towns across the Deep South of the 1950’s, plodding on unquestioningly accustomed to the way it is being the way it always has been.
But just how changed is the Atticus we meet here?
“It’s been so easy over the years to over-simplify his characterisation, which just isn’t there in the way people think it is. It’s just not there,” Nancy Anderson, a distinguished outreach fellow at Montgomery’s Auburn University, who has taught Mockingbird for over 40 years tells me.
The day’s festivities are lazily drawing to a close with a mint-julep party on the courthouse lawn (a loophole in the law allowing such adult beverages to be consumed as long as those partaking purchase a silver julep cup). Nancy and I have moved to a relatively shady corner with our drinks, to talk about the question repeated most often throughout the day – just what is to be done about Atticus?
“We need to remember that Mockingbird was written after Watchman,” Nancy says “And that the creation of Atticus in Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s second statement, not her first.”
Far from being a civil rights crusader, an identity Anderson largely attributes to Peck’s portrayal of the lawyer in the 1962 film adaptation, rather Atticus is a man attempting to live and let live, by upholding the letter of the law, in the segregated South. Advocating a change in spirit among his fellow citizens perhaps, but not a change in political structure.
“He’s got to make a living as a lawyer in this town during that time, what did people think he’d do?” Anderson says. “Even so, some of the words coming out of his mouth are genuinely troubling. But we cannot put 21st Century morals and code of conduct on him.”
As we walk back toward the julep-stand, I wonder just exactly how much has changed in the 55 years since Mockingbird’s publication. Only a few days before, the Confederate flag has been removed from South Carolina’s State House in Columbia, a response to the tragic murder of nine worshipers gathered at a prayer meeting in Charleston’s oldest black church. Pictures of protest, of marching citizens – white and black and of flags flood the news.
The relevance of Watchman’s release is not lost on many here.
“I won’t say this new book is going to endure like Mockingbird has,” Nancy says, as we hand our cups over the makeshift bar for a re-fil. “But it’s going to open a conversation. It’s coming out on the heels of Charleston, of Ferguson and more. And that timing we cannot ignore.”
Artwork by Dean Lewis
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee is available from Harper Collins.
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