Mammon and Fiction
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. New York, HarperCollins. Pp. 278, hardcover $ 27.99.
To kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. First published, 1960; winner of the Pulitzer Prize; numerous reprints have appeared since then; the paperback referred to in this article is issued by Grand Central Publishing, New York. n.d. Pp. 376, $ 8.99.
Trust, betrayal, intrigue, and counter-intrigue punctuate Nelle Harper Lee’s years after she suffered a stroke in 2007, at the age of eighty-one, and moved from a New York Apartment to the Meadows Nursing Home in Monroeville, culminating in the publication of her ‘new novel’, now well established as the draft of her first and only novel, written in her thirties, in the middle of the last century, worked and reworked with the help of a gifted editor, the draft script tied with the published version, and securely put away in a Lee locker. In health and sickness, the celebrity novelist – who passed away recently – had preferred to be left alone and kept a close circle of friends, both in New York and Monroeville, vowing never to publish another novel. Therefore, the publication of her second novel, some hailing it a sequel to her famous first, some calling it a prequel, started last year the habitual readers, rumor machines, cash registers, book hawks, academic circles, and curious critics, to go giddy. As one of her intimate friends cited a line from Nellie’s one time neighbor Marja Mills, ‘Those who know don’t speak, and those who speak don’t know!’ And there lies a fertile ground for imagination and manipulation, both for her admirers and exploiters, literary connoisseurs and lucre chasers.
Lawyer Tonja Carter discovered the keepsake draft three months before the death of Harper Lee’s trusted elder sister, Alice Lee, who too had moved into nursing home, not where her younger sister was, but into another, conveniently for all who ‘cared’. Carter, whom Alice Lee had mentored, encouraged, and later made a partner of her family law firm, renaming it Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter, took full charge of Harper Lee’s affairs, even watching over her visitors, eventually becoming the one and only link between the novelist and the rest of the world, thereby evoking strong likes and dislikes, depending on which side of the Harper Lee narrative you are.
In a way, Nelle Harper Lee’s life may be seen as a drama in two Acts, with rising and falling action.
Act One. An aspiring novelist finds an enterprising agent and an adept editor, who get her to rework her first draft into a published book, To Kill a Mockingbird (Lippincott) that wins her the 1961 Pulitzer and stays ninety-eight weeks on the NYT best-seller list, with more than 30 million copies in print; voted the best novel of the twentieth century in a poll by the Library Journal, still continues to be a much read, admired, adored, and sold book, earning her every year, even in the twenty-first century, millions of dollars in royalties. In 1962 the movie version, starring Gregory Peck, won him an Oscar. Thousands of people visit Monroeville, walk its streets, climb its courthouse steps, and connect it with the fictional Maycomb. Mockingbird Inn & Suites, Radley’s Fountain Grille, Lee Motor Co., Courthouse Café with Boo Burgers, Finch Fries, and other Mockingbird merchandise save the town’s economy from going the way of other neglected rural towns.
Act Two. HarperCollins publishes Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman as ‘a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece.’ The industry goes dizzy. Preorders alone bring in forty million dollars. Some smell a rat, say it is the biggest money grab ever, the author never wanted it to be published, but her lawyer claims the novelist has changed her mind, issues a statement signed by Harper Lee that she is delighted to see the first copy and the initial reactions to the book. Lawyer Tonja Carter stands between the author and her admirers, friends, students, teachers, research scholars, interviewers and reporters. All but the last give up, almost.
Nevertheless, an untiring excavator, Claire Suddath, does valuable digging and publishes her findings in an article, ‘What Does Harper Lee Want?’ in the Bloomberg Business week, July 13-19, 2015, as the cover story ‘To Sell a Mockingbird Sequel’, and the Contents title, ‘Go Sell a Watchman: How a 60-year-old manuscript became 2015’s hottest title’. She notes that ‘rumors have persisted that a younger, more mindful Lee – the one who swore not to publish anything again – wouldn’t abide any of this. Even elder abuse has been suggested.’ Janet Sawyer, who runs the Maycomb Courthouse Café, says, ‘everyone saw Miss Lee at Miss Alice’s funeral. She was sitting there talking to herself.’
Suddath recounts an incident of 2011, when Harper Lee had signed a statement that she ‘hadn’t approved of Mills’s book about her life.’ Alice intervened and wrote to Mills: ‘When I questioned Tonja, I learned that without my knowledge she had typed out the statement, carried it to the Meadows, and had Nelle Harper sign it… Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.’
Suddath points out that the same year Carter notarized an agreement in which Lee had signed away the Mockingbird copyright to a company run by her literary agent Pinkus. Two years later, Lee sued Pinkus to reacquire the copyright, claiming that she had been duped into signing documents because she had trusted the agent and had ‘physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see.’ The case, however, was settled out of court. Suddath asked Carter, how someone could be duped into signing away her copyright and, four years later, be sharp enough to handle publication decisions for Watchman. Carter wouldn’t discuss anything to do with Lee, understandably.
Why would an author, content with her one and only novel, vowing never to publish another, reverse her own decision and publish the discarded draft of what has become an American classic? It cannot be for money or fame; she had plenty of both. Her known penchant for privacy was used by her lawyer, agent and publisher to prevent anyone from getting too close to her in the nursing home, thereby inflating the grapevine even more. Harper Lee was thirty-four when she published the Mockingbird. The stashed away manuscript of Watchman had all the potential to be turned into a powerful sequel, except that it required a good deal of reworking to bring it on a par with the Mockingbird. Lee suffered a stroke at eighty-one, which means she had had forty-seven years to revise her Watchman manuscript, if she ever had even the slightest desire to publish it. That her lawyer, agent and publisher decided to publish it, ostensibly with her consent, without any editing, not even with a note to say it was the first draft of Mockingbird, but purveying it as ‘a landmark new novel’, speaks volumes, raising, on the negative: issues of legal maneuvers, publishing ethics and lucre pursuits; and, on the positive: insights into creative processes, editorial inputs, and pedagogical aids.
Seeds that may raise something good out of something not so good are contained in an article in Quartz, July 14, 2015 – obsession ‘Language’: Keith Collins and Nikhil Sonnad show where ‘Go Set a Watchman overlaps with To Kill a Mockingbird, word-for-word.’ After citing eight passages common to both the novels, on how the town got its name, aunt Alexandra’s corsets, her hour-glass figure and quirky confidence, Coninghamvs Cunningham, mapping Maycomb, and the two-rut road, the writers locate several other sentences with slight changes. Surely no novelist, who knows what is going on, will ‘plagiarize’ her own popular work so blatantly, that too in an internet world; nor a publisher put it all in print, except to make money riding on the author’s celebrity status; or to show the workings of a creative mind, and if so, a publisher’s note that it was the early draft of her only published novel would have set to rest all controversy, but cause célèbre sells like nothing else! Anyway, who thinks lawyers and publishers are literary?
Nelle Lee had had the benefit of Tay Hohoff’s editorial inputs in reworking the ‘series of anecdotes’ of Watchman into the well-structured Mockinbird fiction, shifting the narrative from the omniscient author to the more challenging first person singular. In the process, chunks of the first draft were held back because they did not fit in. Turning the adorable moral conscience of Maycomb into a rabid ringtail racist was the warp and woof of another novel, but it needed a lot of creative grind to make credible the conversion of Atticus Finch. So, the novelist and the editor had shelved the shavings for possible future use. Authors, however, have a weakness to hang on to their drafts, and, like it or not, Watchman is now a published novel and has to stand on its own merits.
Scout, the lovable eight-year-old of the Mockingbird, has grown into a young woman of twenty-six, Jean Louise Finch, living in New York. She is on her fifth visit to Maycomb, to her seventy-two year old father, Atticus, and is horrified to discover that he has become an active racist. After reading a booklet on his father’s desk, The Black Plague by an author flaunting ‘several academic degrees after his name’ (101), she takes a moral high ground.
As if playing the devil’s advocate, the father asks the daughter: ‘Do you want your children going to school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?’ ‘So far in my experience, white is white and black’s black’. ‘We’re outnumbered, you know’ (246). ‘Have you considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?’ (242). Apparently, the Federal Government and the NAACP have turned Atticus into a pragmatist.
The daughter is outraged: ‘You neglected to tell me that we were naturally better than the Negroes’ (247). ‘Why didn’t you make it very plain to me … that Jesus loved all mankind, but there are different kinds of men with separate fences around ‘em, that Jesus meant that any man can go as far as he wants within that fence’(249). ‘They’re people, aren’t they? We were quite willing to import them when they made money for us’ (246). ‘Where could they go? Who could they turn to? I think we deserve everything we’ve gotten from the NAACP and more.’ (243) The daughter reviles the father. Nothing in her character prepares the reader for this.
The father’s explanation doesn’t wash with the daughter, or the earlier attempt of her ardent lover. Henry tells her that once Atticus had joined the Klan, because he had to know the faces behind the masks. Atticus ‘is mighty uncomfortable around folks who cover up their faces.’ ‘A man can be boiling inside, but he knows a mild answer works better than showing his rage. A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them’ (230).
Her beloved Uncle Jack tries to convince her of the inevitability of what is going on in Maycomb, in an academic, historical, and roundabout way; but he too fails.
Disillusioned, frustrated, heartbroken Jean Louise decides to leave her home for good, and packs her trunk. Uncle Jack, who has never struck a woman before, gives her a ‘savage backhand swipe full on the mouth’, treats her cuts, and gives her a shot of whiskey, and one more lecture (266 ff). He tells her that Atticus is letting her break her icons one by one, reduce him to the status of a human being. She is the bigot, not he. ‘It’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It’s hard to see what we are.’‘ You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is the burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You’ve see only people.’‘ The white supremacists fear reason, because they know cold reason beats them. Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.’ ‘The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right.’ Uncle Jack is the authorial voice, obviously.
The novel concludes with a telling metaphor of airplane: ‘they’re the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make the thing fly. Too much of us and we’re nose-heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy – it is a matter of balance’ (277).
There is plenty of quality fiction in the Watchman, but also plenty that is sophomoric, for instance, the entire Chapter 15, Jean’s first dance at school. She realizes she doesn’t know how to dance, panics, gets Uncle Jack’s help; she is fat, fourteen, becomes figure conscious, gets false bosoms. During the dance, Henry notices her falsies have shifted, yanks and flings them ‘as far as he could into the night’ (215). He doesn’t know they land on the principal’s favorite billboard, ‘In the service of their country’ ‘blocking out the last letter’ (219). ‘The next day was a school day, and the dance broke up at eleven’ (215). In the morning, the principal demands a confession from the perpetrator of the obscenity. ‘Fifty anxious minutes later’ 105 girls confess the falsies are theirs (221). In less than an hour, Henry has been able to consult ‘his lawyer’ Atticus, return to school, convince 105 girls to submit ‘confessions’, and confound the principal into taking no disciplinary action!
When we compare this impossibility with the implausibility of the eight-year-old Scout wading, in the Mockingbird, into a tense encounter of her father with drunken men intent on murder, and her innocent prattle diffusing a potentially violent situation, we realize what an able editor might have done to get the author to do better. Another instance is the contrast in Jean Louise Scout’s visits to Calpurnia: when Jem dies, the former black housekeeper fondly reminisces to her dear Scout about Jem bringing her an electric coat to keep her warm; two years later, the same Calpurnia is cold and polite to Scout, now visiting the housekeeper in her grief, as her grandson is arrested for murder (161-62). To think that race relations in Maycomb have worsened so drastically in two years and Jean Louise is utterly ignorant, strains all credibility. Such things are not impossible, but they need to be made probable in a work of art.
Glaring discrepancies could have been easily avoided. For instance, Jean Louise’s recollection of the old court case: in Watchman, her memory is Atticus won ‘acquittal for a colored boy on rape charge’ (109), whereas, in the Mockingbird, the accused black was convicted by a white jury, of a crime he had not committed.
When great writers doze, good editors watch. When lawyers and publishers think they know better, we have melodrama and Mammon worship. Alas, the Watchman went without watch.
D.S. Rao, Ph.D., is an author, literary critic, retired professor, and former Editor of Indian Literature, the academic and literary bimonthly of Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters, India. Presently, he is based in Minneapolis, but divides his time between USA and India.