Lee ’s Second Novel Stirs Color Debate

Dasu Krishnamoorty

After more than a week of countless conflicting stories about Harper Lee’s much trumpeted second novel Go Set A Watchman, The New York Times detonated an incredible story of fraud behind the publication of the book. Some people might attribute it to the Times’ traditional rivalry that extends naturally to Harper Collins, another Murdoch outfit. Barring The Times reputation there is nothing to vouch for the veracity of the story. The Times story is bound to unleash umpteen new theories, making the publication of the novel an undying controversy.

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Dasu Krishnamoorty

As The Times article pointed out the novel “was all anybody in literary circles could talk about” after it was published. Three distinct streams emerged from the flood of reviews that greeted Watchman: anger at the transformation of the liberal Atticus Lee into racist bigot, the downsizing of his six-year old argumentative daughter and the silent coming of age of the black psyche. You can see a parallel between Scout Atticus regarding her New York stay helping her outgrow her southern personality and the new black influx into ideologically morphed Macomb. Several critics have questioned the inappropriate timing of the release of the book, implying a reference to the ongoing American debate on North-South relations, Harper Lee’s fears of too much fame seem to have come true. Go Set A Watchman oversold the publisher’s expectations but irritated not a few reviewers. Its publication left Lee in a state of confoundment (courtesy Harper Lee) as it did the army of Lee admirers. Its extraordinary sales triumph is baffling considering the thumbs down by the reviewer community.

The publication drags to the center stage the role publishers, editors and award institutions play in the success or otherwise of writers. The Nobel Committee may find it hard to convincingly explain why a J.M.Coetzee gets the Prize while Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie are regularly shortlisted only to get a short shrift.

We may recall how publishing history is full of stories of arrogant editors bullying aspiring writers with editorial edicts.  Maxwell Perkins, the longtime editorial director at Charles Scribner’s Sons, told Ernest Hemingway to “tone it down,” and cut 90,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel. At The New Yorker. Raymond Carver’s fortunes depended on the vagaries of editor Gordon Lish, who chopped off entire passages from his short stories. After Carver’s death his wife Tess Gallagher had republished his short story collection, restoring all those words that Lish had excised. We all know how R.K.Narayan had to get Graham Green recommend him to the publisher. The recent titles coming out of the warehouses of leading Indian and foreign publishers are eminently forgettable works that need to be repeatedly remaindered every week.

Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman has become the biggest literary controversy of the century, strangely for a negative streak early media critics found in it. It’s very negativity must have increased the sales manifold. Her earlier novel To Kill a Mocking Bird sold 40 million copies. Watchman has oversold the prerelease target.

Sales, matching those of her first novel To Kill A Mocking Bird, are some consolation Harper Lee took home for her second novel, Watchman. The first novel has been a mandatory part of school curriculum ensuring that three generations of American kids have become Lee fans and have now come of age in the company of the two main Mocking Bird characters, lawyer Atticus Lee and his six-year old tomboy daughter Scout Lee.

The kind of publicity blitz, the media overkill, the literary brouhaha that preceded the release of Harry Potter or Murakami title heralded the launch of Go Set A Watchman, follow-up to To Kili A Mocking Bird that tumbled out of the freezer an incredible half century after it had been written. It came amidst a flurry of stories about the author’s unpredictable moods and whimsicality creating an aura of controversy and even doubts about its publication. All this pre-release drama seems in hindsight a theater contrived between the author and the publisher.

 Katie Kouric, Yahoo’s global news anchor posted herself at Monroeville, the setting for the novel. According to the publisher, the novel follows a 26-year-old Scout (who has now abandoned that moniker in favor of her true name, Jean-Louise) after she returns to her hometown to visit her father Atticus Finch and assorted childhood friends.

There is no explanation as to how The Wall Street Journal could release the first chapter four days ahead of launch to inflame the appetites of the readers. Nearly every newspaper, radio station and TV channel published it later. Equally mysterious is The New York Times chief literary critic Michiko Kakutani reviewing the novel even before its release. The novel was not edited. The publisher explained that they didn’t want to intervene between Lee and her readers. The consequences of this accommodation are too prominent to miss.

But the general arraignment of the novel centered on the transformation of Mocking Bird’s Atticus Finch into a segregationist bigot in Watchman. Several stories are in circulation as to why the first novel, Watchman, was published 52 years after the second novel To Kill A Mocking Bird had come out. Lee had first written Watchman but the publisher and the editor advised her to confer youth on her characters. In her anxiety to be published she agreed to the basic change in the novel. The changed version became To Kill A Mocking Bird. But the original manuscript remained with her in some nook of her house or was stolen or was burnt in a fire. In the end it was found in a maze of papers her lawyer was riffling through.  Harper Collins, sensing the value of the novel’s history, persuaded her to publish it. She agreed to its publication after much hemming and hawing.

It should have occurred to the critics that just as Monroeville had changed into Maycomb, it had become a black majority town keenly zealous of its new identity. Just as Scout Atticus became Jean Louise Finch people and places too change as events of half a century overtake the town. It is to such a place that the old Lee returns after a life of liberty and license in the city of sin. Critics seem to have overlooked these triggers of change.

Despite fault lines, despite external interventions, Watchman has much to offer in the form of daughter’s dialogues with the father, with Henry Clinton, with her aunt, uncle and even Calpurnia that are metaphysical in nature.

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