Mockingbird: Harper Lee’s expression of American change

Harper Lee in 1962, , two years after Mockingbird was published (Source: Jbarta)Harper Lee in 1962, , two years after Mockingbird was published (Source: Jbarta)

The news that Harper Lee was publishing a second novel was greeted by a roar of ecstasy in the literary world and beyond. The BBC described it as launching a ‘‘trade frenzy’’, while the Bookseller magazine anticipates Go Set a Watchman to be ‘‘as big as it gets for new fiction’’, and was told by Jonathan Ruppin of Foyles – summing up the general response – that ‘‘the prospect of a follow-up, after all these years, is giddyingly thrilling.’’

Yet much controversy surrounds this outburst of joy. Thankfully, the speculation that a reluctant Lee was pressured into publication seems to have been quashed. Fears about this arose due to her numerous avowals over the years never to publish another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird, and the death of her 100 year-old sister and protector from unwanted media attention, two months prior to the announcement. In response, Harper Lee has given a statement describing herself as ‘‘humbled and amazed’’ that the novel will be published after her lawyer Tonja Carter discovered the lost manuscript.

However, questions of a more literary nature remain. Go Set a Watchman will be a sequel to Mockingbird, set twenty years after its denouement. Don’t sequels to acclaimed novels just relate events that the author wisely chose to leave out of their masterpiece? For example, The Witches of Eastwick is a popular – if atypical – John Updike novel to which readers are likely to return a century into the future, thanks to its mischievous magical realism and narrative of female empowerment. But The Widows of Eastwick, the sequel Updike wrote a quarter of a century later, will undoubtedly go down in literary history as one of the great writer’s duds. Ardent fans of the previous novel raced through the follow-up to find that there was a reason The Witches of Eastwick ended where it did, and that the sequel is merely an anodyne story of characters reminiscing about the events of the first narrative, back in the famous novel when they were interesting.

Henry James – as great a literary theorist as he was a novelist – asserted that ‘‘relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw, by a geometry of his own, the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so’’. If someone writes a great novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, a necessary criterion for such greatness is that its denouement works, that it is either satisfying or intriguingly mysterious. Sequels, according to this logic, make the ending of the previous novel redundant; they show a novelist failing to deal with the ‘‘exquisite problem’’ articulated by James.

The second big question lost in the volcanic cheers of joy at the prospect of a Go Set a Watchman is whether its famous predecessor To Kill a Mockingbird is all that good in the first place. Yes, estimates suggest over 30 million copies have been sold, making it rank among the bestselling novels of all time. Yes, it has been popular with generations of schoolchildren who have identified with its tender portrayal of coming of age and loss of innocence. And yes, it famously carries a profound and necessary message about the evils of racism.

Yet unquestionably lauding a text and casting aside the evaluative critical analyses that are usually applied creates an unhealthy atmosphere in literary culture. In any case, dissenting opinions have been expressed before about the merits of Lee’s celebrated novel. The Southern American Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor – regarded as perhaps the greatest short story writer in the English language – said of To Kill a Mockingbird at the time of its publication in 1960 that ‘‘all the folks that are buying it don’t know they’re reading a children’s book.’’ Similarly, Cambridge’s Dr. Ian Patterson dismissed it as ‘‘a soggy sentimental liberal novel if ever there was one’’. Both critics of To Kill a Mockingbird suggest that the story is too simplistic, deprived of the moral ambiguity necessary for literary quality, in its portrayal of Atticus Finch as a one-dimensional good man pitted against the malignancy of racism. According to this line of reasoning, To Kill a Mockingbird should subtly make clear the nefariousness of racism; it is unnecessary to hammer home such an obvious point.

However, the second – and by extension the first – question surrounding Lee’s fiction can be addressed by illuminating her writing’s place in American literary history. While critics identify her as part of the Southern Gothic tradition in literature – reigned over by the titanic figures of O’Connor and William Faulkner, and encompassing Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers and the early works of Truman Capote – To Kill a Mockingbird enacts a break with that tradition. The quintessential Southern Gothic novel is distinguished by an all-pervasive combination of the mad, macabre and grotesque. In some such works, characters experience some sort of redemption, but it is invariably a dark form of redemption, darker than in Dostoevsky, summed up by the devout Catholic O’Connor as ‘‘grace, like a bullet in the side’’. Scout learning that Boo Radley is actually a nice man after he saves her and Jem from the evil Bob Ewell may seem too much like the denouement of a children’s book to fit that description.

It is this miscategorisation of To Kill a Mockingbird as Southern Gothic, leading to false expectations of moral ambiguity and dark redemptions in the novel, which, combined with critics’ inevitable desire to cut tall poppies down, explains the charges of sentimentalism and lack of subtlety in making moral points. Truman Capote, Lee’s childhood friend and the basis for the character Dill in Mockingbird, placed his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms very much in that tradition, with the Gothic literary trope and symbol of the old South of the ancient, decaying mansion at the centre of a grotesque and debauched tale. The suffocating influence of Faulkner is pervasive. And as Flannery O’Connor said of that colossal figure, ‘‘the presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.’’

With Mockingbird, Lee takes a different path, writing under the influence of nineteenth-century English fiction – novels unashamed of sentiment and interpretably woolly liberalism. Harper Lee’s self-declared model was Austen; ‘‘all I want is to be the Jane Austen of south Alabama’’, she stated shortly after publishing Mockingbird. But perhaps the author she most resembles in her approach is George Eliot. The emphasis for both writers is on human flourishing (both finding personal happiness and promoting the greater good for others) borne out of empathy – the same philosophy of personal relations which drives Middlemarch. Atticus Finch’s statement that ‘‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it’’ is at the heart of Mockingbird. And it is an analogue of Eliot’s idea, expressed in a much more complex fashion in Middlemarch, that we are trapped in our own psyches, but can mitigate this enough to avoid the negative consequences through imaginative sympathy for the predicaments of others’. To cite one of the best and most celebrated metaphors of the novel: ‘‘Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection.’’ We are led into follies and dangerous ideas (such as the racism and snobbery of Lee’s Maycomb, Alabama) because we fail to step outside the ‘‘flattering illusion’’ of our own perspectives. We must shine the lights of our intellects and imaginations into the experience of others – that is how the prejudice ravaging Maycomb and the American South can be destroyed.

The same ideological currents flow through negative criticism of Middlemarch as that of To Kill a Mockingbird. The focus on the role of empathy strikes some readers as simply not enough. As the Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton wrote of the former, ‘‘the idea that lack of sympathy springs from lack of knowledge – that to understand all is to forgive all [is] a typically liberal mistake.’’ This idea is related to the aforementioned notion of To Kill a Mockingbird as a ‘‘soggy sentimental liberal novel’’; that the injustice of racism requires a more edgy and potent ideological response in fiction than Mockingbird’s gentle insistence on empathy. The desire, it seems, is for a novel suffused with the darkness and violence of the Southern Gothic, abandoning the niceties inherent in influence of the nineteenth-century English novel, in favour of the savagery of Faulkner and O’Connor, with their defeatist sense of racism as inevitable thrown out of the window, and all the riotous, Dostoyevskian brutality directed at the evil of racial prejudice and discrimination. This is quite understandable, to think that Lee’s novel – as Eagleton argues Middlemarch to be – is simply too all-encompassing in its niceness to take an axe to the ice of prejudice at the heart of the human soul (as Kafka would put it).

But as with Middlemarch, it would be a simplifying misinterpretation to say that To Kill a Mockingbird shows understanding that in turn shows forgiveness towards immoral characters and their malevolent actions. Atticus teaches Scout to feel much empathy towards Bob Ewell, the racist who rapes his daughter and successfully pins the blame on the African-American Tom Robinson. Ewell can be seen as the product of severe structural problems in American society: he is in an abominable socio-economic position, living in squalor. He is a man whose intense racism is borne out of an endemic, institutionalised belief in white superiority in the South, combined with the desire of someone downtrodden by society to feel as if he is better than another group of people.

But at the same time, Lee portrays him unambiguously as a bad character. Ewell’s flaws also stem from a failure to escape his own ignorance, to enter into the minds of his daughter and Tom Robinson and see how his actions towards them are unspeakably nefarious, malevolent in their selfishness and underlying ignorance, just like the actions of the societal forces that lead to his status as white trash. In this light, it is impossible to see To Kill a Mockingbird as a ‘‘soggy sentimental liberal’’ novel, nor as a ‘‘children’s book’’ populated by one-dimensional characters, divided in simplistic Manichean fashion between good and evil.

With regard to the sequel, we shouldn’t expect fireworks, nor, frankly, for the novel to match the quality of To Kill a Mockingbird. The sequel is actually an antecedent of Lee’s much-loved bestseller. It was written and is set in the 1950s, about Scout returning to Maycomb to visit Atticus, and containing flashbacks to the past that Lee’s editor identified as the strongest parts of the novel. From these parts she teased out a refined, specific focus on Scout’s childhood, which developed into To Kill a Mockingbird as a separate novel. So we should expect a less polished work of fiction in Go Set a Watchman, before the evolution of Lee’s talents and writing style and the editorial expertise that shaped Mockingbird.

However, the nature of To Kill a Mockingbird as a coming-of-age tale in which Scout comes to realise that Maycomb is not really a ‘‘sleepy old town’’ but a hotbed of disturbing societal evils shows why – for all the theoretical issues with sequels – Go Set a Watchman will almost certainly be a fascinating read. The revolutionary decade of the ’60s, with its combination of tumult and carnage with real, unambiguous positive developments for civil rights, quickly produced a markedly different situation in America from that of the ’50s merely a few years before. Nevertheless, the ’50s were a world away from the ’30s, the bygone pre-war, sleepy old era, before the boom in economic and technological growth after the Second World War.

By this point the traditional order had frayed. Changes that would have seemed impossible in the ’30s had come trickling through after the upheaval of war. President Truman enacted a desegregation of the military in 1948. The Supreme Court decreed in 1954 that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional and had to stop. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 created an unstoppable momentum for the civil rights movement – especially when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of its objective a year later. But there was a reactionary response by many powerful white Southerners and their supporters. For example, in 1957 Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus ordered the state National Guard to prevent black students from attending Little Rock Central High School, as the Supreme Court declared they could – and ended up one of the ‘‘Ten Most Admired Americans’’, according to Gallup’s 1958 poll.

This context of tension between powerful forces on both sides of the civil rights battle will show Scout, Atticus and their milieu in a new light. As mentioned earlier, sequels are problematic and more often than not simply don’t work. But post-WW2 US fiction has been one of their rare fertile breeding grounds – and this era is one in which America is the hegemonic world power, events which have a unique importance for people across the globe, but also marked by turbulent – indeed, revolutionary – occurrences. Sequels have had a rare flourishing in this time and place precisely because they have charted the effect of America’s huge social, economic and political changes on the lives, attitudes and perspectives of recurrent characters. Think of John Updike’s three sequels to Rabbit, Run (1959), which noted the wildly changing societal circumstances at the ends of the three succeeding decades, and their varying consequences for the protagonist, Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom. Or even novels so seemingly introverted, postmodern and reflexive as Philip Roth’s first six Nathan Zuckerman novels. Following on from the first, The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound seems to possess a similar autobiographical focus on what it means to be a writer. Its success arises from its portrayal of Zuckerman’s existence as a monkish devotee to his own fiction whilst otherwise having a wildly unstructured, somewhat hedonistic life, contrasting with his prototypical younger self in the previous novel – an earnest, naive ingénue. But the striking thing about this is how it mirrors the changes in attitudes to culture and the high arts in America from the respective epochs of the two novels, the ’50s and ’60s. The tentative, innocent and sincere young man of The Ghost Writer is the product of a decade in which literary culture was orientated around a belief in the moral authority of Great Books and encouraged a reverent humility amongst those entering the world of literature. However, by the ’60s, the paradigmatic notion of the writer figure had become one of the countercultural outlaw, the wild scribbler observing the carnival on the margins.

Go Set a Watchman arises from a slightly earlier, less polished Harper Lee. But at the same time it will contain much rich material as it responds to the socio-political climate of the Deep South twenty years on from the narrative of its great predecessor. While unlikely to be quite as good as To Kill a Mockingbird (few novels are), it looks set to be a sequel up there with those of Roth and Updike.