Harper Lee’s Lost Novel

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Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville, Alabama on April 28th 1926. She is the youngest of four children. Her father was a lawyer and editor of a newspaper while her mother stayed at home with the children. Finch was her mother’s maiden name and the name she would go on to use for her fictional family in To Kill a Mockingbird. She went to the University of Alabama to study law but never finished the degree. In 1956 Lee moved to New York City and worked as an airline reservation agent. She wrote fiction in her spare time. She became friends with Joy and Michael Brown. They were fellow southerners who she was introduced to by her childhood friend and fellow writer Truman Capote. Capote was friendly with the Brown’s and asked them to look out for Lee while she was in the city. They read many of her stories and thought she should pursue writing as a profession. In the Christmas of 1949 Joy and Michael gave Lee an extraordinary gift. They gave her the money that allowed her to quit her job for one year and become a full-time writer. They believed wholeheartedly that Lee was born to write and so they didn’t question giving her the money. She later wrote about receiving this gift from the Brown’s and what their faith in her really meant.

“There was an envelope on the tree addressed to me, I opened it and read: You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas…… Our faith in you is really all I heard them say, I would do my best not to fail them.” Harper Lee

Lee’s first manuscript entitled “Atticus” transformed during this time into “Go Set a Watchman”. Lee took it to a publisher to see if they would be interested in publishing it. They encouraged her to go further back into the story of these characters and tell it from the beginning. Her publisher later said that it was more like a collection of short stories than a novel. She said there were dangling threads of plot but not a whole story and it’s a testament to how impressed they were by Lee herself that they signed a contract there and then. For two more years Lee worked on the novel. In an article for the New York Times Lee describes this time as a long and hopeless period of writing the book over and over again. The final creation was called “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It was eventually published in 1961.  Without this amazing act of friendship and the insight of her editor it may never have been possible.

The book was an instant bestseller. Nelle chose not to use her first name and so readers knew her as Harper Lee. She went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction later that year. This was to everyone’s delight, everyone except for her friend Truman Capote that is. Capote and Lee remained great friends for years after the book’s publication. Lee even helped him to do research for his book “In Cold Blood“. He believed that this book would lead to him winning the same kind of accolades as Lee. Capote never did win a Pulitzer Prize and eventually resentment and jealousy set in which caused the friends to drift apart. This was a great loss for Lee, after all she did base one of her characters, Dill Harris on Capote. He was her dearest friend. Lee’s book went on to win many other prizes as well as being made into a major motion picture. Atticus was played by renowned actor Gregory Peck. The movie won three academy awards including a Best Actor for Peck. Lee has publicly said that she believed it to be one of the best screenplay adaptations ever written. She was heavily involved in the making of the movie and was on set for much of the time they were filming.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mi88P7KfaMA

I feel at this point I must, for those of you who have not read To Kill A Mockingbird, fill you in on what the story is about. The novel takes place in the 1930’s in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama during the great depression. The story is told from the point of view of six-year-old Jean Louise Finch nicknamed Scout. She lives with her brother Jem and widowed father Atticus Finch. Atticus is a white lawyer who is defending a black man called Tom Robinson who is falsely accused of raping a white woman.

The novel explores the events leading up to and after the trial. It is narrated simultaneously from the point of view of six-year-old Scout and the adult Scout looking back at her childhood. Therefore the story is told through the eyes of a child but with an adults understanding. This particular type of innocence makes this story all the more captivating. It explains things in a way that only a child can. It is very difficult to strike this balance but Lee manages it flawlessly. It is a novel that explores several themes of justice, innocence, prejudice, judgement and racism to name a few. In the 1930’s in the American south a black man accused of a crime against a white woman would most certainly have been convicted no matter what the evidence against him. Therefore the bravery of Atticus Finch to take on this case in a small town was unheard of. This story made Americans question their attitudes to race. The character of Atticus holds us all up to a higher standard of humanity. Perhaps we can never match up to it but I think Lee was inviting her readers to at least try.

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Harper Lee

Lee was extremely brave to publish this book in 1960. Although it was set thirty years earlier the sixties was a very difficult time for race relations in America. The issue of segregation was a hot topic and violent scenes were erupting all over the place. It is one thing to write a book about these issues after the fact but to do so during such a tumultuous time is really an amazing act of bravery. Not to mention the fact that Lee, although she denied it at first, was writing about her own community. She has an extraordinary ability to show the reader both sides of the story without laying blame at anyones feet. She did not accuse or label the people of this small town as racists just because they were doing what was normal to them. She simply pointed out that perhaps what was normal wasn’t always right. We are all raised inside a structure and thought not to question it. Lee not only questions it, she asked her readers to do the same.

“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Harper Lee

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was fourteen years old. I was living nowhere near Alabama nor was I living a similar life yet something about this story deeply affected me. Another theme in the novel is the outsider. Boo Radley’s story is one that runs along side the trial of Tom Robinson. He is a character that stays inside his house and doesn’t dare come out and live among his community. As a result the towns people concoct many horrible stories about him in order to try to explain his behaviour. They automatically demonize him because they don’t understand him. Although Boo Radley is the definitive outsider many of Lee’s characters also take on this role during the course of the novel.

Tom Robinson is a black man falsely accused of a terrible crime and so he is treated as an outsider because of his race. Atticus is portrayed as an outsider because he is defending a black man and no one in the town approves of his actions. Even Scout is an outsider because she doesn’t behave as a young girl should. She is a tomboy and prefers to hang around with Jem and Dill rather than to behave like a lady. When Scout first goes to school she feels completely out-of-place. She doesn’t understand the other children and they certainly don’t understand her. My favourite scene in the book is when Scout goes home to her father and declares that she won’t be returning to school. This exchange between father and daughter is so simple yet poignant. Atticus gives Scout a piece of advice that has stayed with me since I was fourteen and fundamentally changed my own experiences in school. He tells Scout that she will never really understand a person until she sees things from their point of view.

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things form his point of view…..Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee

From this moment on Scout realises that she cannot expect other peoples reactions to the world to be the same as hers. She begins to see that in order to understand people she has to except that their experiences are different from hers and try to see things from their perspective. By using this simple metaphor of “climbing into their shoes” she starts to see the world through very different eyes. I along with millions of readers owe a lot to Harper Lee for this lesson. I too felt very out-of-place in school. I was an outsider. Yet when I read Lee’s book I too began to realise that when people saw me with different eyes it had nothing to do with me, It was due to our different experiences in life. I started to try to see things from other peoples point of view and suddenly I was free. This realisation radically changed me and I realised that we were all different from each other. It wasn’t a flaw and it wasn’t just me. It seems that I was not the only one to cherish Harper Lee’s novel because it has gone on to sell forty-million copies in forty different languages and it still, all these years later manages to sell a million copies a year.

After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee received a lot of attention from the press and it began to take its toll. In 1964 she gave her last interview and then began to withdraw from public life. There was talk that she was working on another novel but it never materialised. This made it all the more surprising when the news emerged last year that a new novel had been discovered and was being published. It was called Go Set a Watchman. Some 45 years after the release of her last book a new one was finally on the horizon. The title comes from the prophet Isiah verse 21:6

“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seethe. 

Although it was presented as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird the novel was actually written long before. It is in effect the rough cut of what would go on to be a great American novel. It tells the story of 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch who comes back to her home town of Maycomb from New York after many years. It is the coming of age story of a young women who is grappling with the realities of the place where she grew up. The rose-tinted glasses are taken off and she has to see things from an adult perspective.

“Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along” Harper Lee

The discovery of this novel was extremely controversial for a number of reasons. Firstly because Lee is now in her nineties and living in a care facility therefore many people including lawyers and publishers were involved in the release of her novel. In fact the story of how it was discovered is not quite clear. The question began to arise as to whether Lee really did want this novel to be published at all. Many suggested that Lee has been taken advantage of during this process. The other side of the camp however insist that Lee really did wish for this book to be put out into the world. An investigation was launched by the state in order to uncover if Lee was mentally competent enough to agree to the book’s publication.

According to investigators who interviewed Lee several times she was coherent and repeatedly said that she wanted the book published. I struggled with this argument quite a lot because Lee is a writer I admire very much and I in no way wanted to play any part in her manipulation. Even though I could never imagine Lee, who is so sharp and witty being fooled by anyone. In the end I must admit my desire to spend more time in the company of these characters took over and I had to read the book.

Another reason that the release of the novel was so controversial and perhaps the one that has caused the most discussion is that the reader returns to find the beloved Atticus Finch somewhat changed. This provoked a very strong reaction. Some readers even went so far as to demand a refund after buying the book. In Watchman Atticus isn’t the saintly character he once was. He is flawed and appears to have some racist and prejudice opinions towards black people. I think many readers felt deeply betrayed by this revelation. They wanted to leave him up on the pedestal that was erected for him years ago.

Ironically Jean Louise is dealing with the same struggle as the readers are in real life. It is a classic case of art imitating life. Jean Louise, formally known as Scout, has always seen her father as the greatest of men and during this trip she discovers that he is in fact just a man. He is a human being who makes mistakes like everyone else. Over the course of her visit Jean Louise is forced to confront the notion that her family, friends and neighbours do have prejudices when it comes to the issue of race. She can no longer comfort herself with memories of the past. She must accept the present and the difficult truths that come with it. This discovery is at times devastating for her and the reader. Especially when it comes to Atticus Finch.

“But a man who has lived by truth—and you have believed in what he has lived—he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing.” Harper Lee

Simply put Go Set a Watchman is a story about growing up. We all force ourselves to believe that some things do stay the same. That is perhaps why nostalgia seduces us so affectively. It’s hard to accept that the world in which we grow up does not stay the same and neither do the people. Scout somehow expects the town she left behind to have remained the same but of course it is impossible. Its like the writer Thomas Wolfe say’s ‘you can’t go home again‘. You can’t recapture that feeling even if you return or remain in the same place. It is forever changed by the passing of time.

Unfortunately Scout spends much of the novel trying to achieve the impossible goal and therefore the novel drifts in and out of her childhood memories until eventually she is forced to see the truth. There are those for whom Watchman won’t live up to their expectations and of course it couldn’t. Imagine if you will a much-loved novel that was released in the last few years, everyone waits with bated breath for a follow-up and it usually ends in crushing disappointment. Add to that almost fifty years of expectations and well, that’s quite a weight for one book to bear.

Of course this novel could never match up to its predecessor but I think it is still well worth the read. It is probably best to take these two works of fiction as separate entities. If that is too difficult a task then perhaps we can look at Watchman as a first attempt at what would become a master piece. I must say if Watchman was to be my final attempt of a book I would be quite happy. I will agree that it does feel unfinished in places and it is in no way a perfect novel. I do still believe however that Lee’s pros and wit shine through. Her unique stamp is most defiantly imprinted on this book. She knows how to tell a good story that’s for sure. I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting these characters and mourned for the ones we’ve lost.

In spite of the adjustments Atticus remains unchanged in my eyes. He will always be a hero in spite of some painful revolutions about his character. I believe that rather than being a racist Atticus is simply afraid of change. His ailing body is failing him and I think he is just trying to hold onto a world that he recognises. Both he and Jean Louise must eventually accept that the only certainty in life is that things will change. This realisation does make for some painful moments as a reader. I too found myself longing for the idealistic fourteen year old who first read Lee’s book but both myself and Jean Louise have grown up and therefore we must go forward. In some ways Atticus passes the baton to Jean Louse and the next generation and asks us to be the hero instead of our parents. Jean Louise takes the lessons Atticus has thought her as a child and must have the courage to carry them on by herself.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.” Harper Lee

Some people might think that I should take off my own rose tinted glasses and not let my undying love for To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee to cloud my judgement of Go Set A Watchman but you see I can’t. It breaks my heart to hear people say that Mockingbird is in any way tainted by this new novel. Lee’s first novel is if you excuse the pun a rare bird that cannot be replicated. It exists on its own. I think that although Watchman is unpolished Scout is really Lee at that time of her life begging the people around her to see the injustices that were going on. We all know that feeling when you are young and you just believe in something without question.  Although this book was written before Mockingbird I really do believe, call me crazy, that characters take on a life of their own. Nelle loved her father and I think in this novel she is coming back to challenge both him and the belief system she was brought up in. She is the hero of Watchman and I am glad for her.

This raw, unpolished version is somehow fitting because it still has meaning. The title of the book says it best, she is sending a watchman to see what is going wrong in the world and reminding us that we have to keep changing even though it hurts. I think in this day and age we all could do with that kind of reminder. At a time where shootings happen on a regular basis and racism and intolerance play such a prominent role in our lives it was about time for Harper Lee to revisit our consciousness. We all clearly need to confront the enemy because quite often the enemy is ourselves. I urge everyone and anyone to read this book and anything else Harper Lee has written because she shines a light on the worst and best of humanity and reminds us all that we can do better.

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3 Comments

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