Strangely, it was almost exactly a year ago that Harper Lee’s publisher stunned the world by announcing a newly discovered novel from the then-88-year-old author of the beloved 1960 Southern classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Questions were immediate, but few could imagine the ensuing shock when Go Set a Watchman was released in July and Atticus Finch, Mockingbird’s heroic father figure, was revealed as a bigot.
Did the publication of Watchman tarnish the pristine legacy of a woman who for 55 years was known for a single masterpiece?
The outpouring of affection for Lee, who died Friday at age 89 in Monroeville, Alabama, makes it clear that generations of readers have embraced Mockingbird as a seminal American story, a touchstone of racial tolerance. The novel is a classroom staple, and that is unlikely to change.
I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird last year for the first time in decades, in preparation for reviewing Watchman. So often a book you’ve read as a young person fails to pass the test of time. Not so with Mockingbird.
The book is a marvel, brilliantly structured, wonderfully told in the voice of Scout Finch, a stand-in for its tomboyish author as a child. It tells a whopping good story (you need that to hook kids), and who can ever forget ghostly Boo Radley, the enigmatic neighbor who breaks your heart? (I admit I cried re-reading Lee’s tale.)
Most importantly, To Kill a Mockingbird never whitewashes the small-town racism of the 1930s South. It's a book determined to make young readers feel like grownups (some of the subject matter is quite adult) and grownups feel like children in their petty grievances and prejudices.
Which brings us back to Atticus Finch, Scout’s father and the soul of To Kill a Mockingbird. In riveting courtroom scenes in the Jim Crow South, he courageously defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman. Atticus is a beacon of strength and wisdom, and it didn't hurt that Gregory Peck played him in the movie version.
Gregory Peck was a famous Hollywood Star.
Photo: Associated Press
Go Set a Watchman was written in the 1950s before Mockingbird, rejected by editors, hidden away and then found several years ago by Lee's lawyer. According to publisher HarperCollins, the author gave her blessing to the book's publication, and Lee, who was in declining health after a stroke, did attend a lunch last year to celebrate the event. Some skeptics thought it a money grab.
Watchman became an instant No. 1 USA TODAY best seller.
What were Lee’s motivations for allowing her inexperienced novel to see the light of day? Watchman appears to be an early draft of Mockingbird, although it's set 20 years later, in the 1950s. Jean Louise (Scout’s real name) is now a young adult living in New York who returns home to Maycomb, where she stumbles upon the realisation that her father is not the saint that she (and we) think he is.
Go Set a Watchman is disturbing, of course, and it’s not a very good book, although it has flashes of Lee’s humor and charm. And despite all the controversy and backlash by critics, the novel wrestles with complex themes.
It re-establishes Lee as a stalwart anti-racist, as Jean Louise, physically sickened, argues with Atticus over issues such as looming desegregation. Its reemergence after 60 years seems eerily timely in a nation still wrestling, sometimes brutally, with a deep racial divide.
I said in my review of Go Set a Watchman that ultimately it will be seen as a footnote - a fascinating and troubling one - to literary history. Who was the real Atticus?
We’ll never know now, and we’ll never read To Kill a Mockingbird again with the same naivete.
But read it we must.