“Harper Lee’s controversial lost novel, written before the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill aMockingbird, is set in the mid-fifties in the States. It unfolds at a turbulent time in American history. The Supreme Court has declared school segregation unconstitutional and, inspired by Rosa Parks, the National Association of Coloured People (the NAACP) is running a bus boycott. In neighbouring Mississippi, two white men have been found not guilty of murdering the black teenager Emmett Till; a killing they subsequently admitted to. Into this febrile atmosphere comes Jean Louise (‘Scout’) Finch, pleased to be returning home [from New York] for her annual fortnight with her family in Maycomb [Alabama].”
This was the succinct and informative introduction spoken by the continuity announcer on BBC Radio 4 before the first instalment of the abridged version of the novel was read, in ten instalments, as the Book at Bedtime in August, following the publication of the novel in July 2015. It was not repeated before any of the subsequent instalments, nor before the omnibus editions on Radio 4 Extra on the Saturday of each of the two weeks it was broadcast, being replaced with the more anodyne description of the book as Harper Lee’s “long-awaited novel”.
That first continuity announcer may have got his wrist slapped for his all-too-accurate description of the book as ‘controversial’, but his background information is essential for the reader who comes to the book in 2015 without a detailed knowledge of the landmark events in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and of the timeline of those events, too.
Historical context to the book
Before assessing either the literary or historical merit or significance of this book, it is essential to bear in mind that it was written in the mid fifties; in other words, at the very time the southern US states were being shaken to the core by these events. Had it been published at the time it was written, it would have been very controversial indeed, and would probably have pleased neither the advocates for the civil rights of the African-Americans nor their opponents.
The first would not have liked Jean Louise’s agreement to her father’s and uncle’s assessment of the ‘negroes’ as “childish and ill-educated” and therefore not ready for an active role in government (without making the obvious counter-argument that black people were denied education and forced to adopt a pattern of behaviour in the presence of whites that would suit the latter’s stereotype, while ‘uppity niggers’ met with violence and abuse at best and, at worst, lynching for themselves and the the burning of their homes and churches as a further collective punishment).
The whites, meanwhile, would not have liked the heroine’s insistence that the negroes were all human beings who were entitled to equality now and not in some distant future at a pace determined by the whites ‘for the negroes’ own good’, and that racist propaganda characterising them as sub-human should be denounced and proscribed and its authors reviled rather than lauded, as much of it was as bad as any of Goebbels’ work.
But there was at least no need for the author to explain to the reader what was going on in Alabama and in Mississippi at that time. In her first conversation after her arrival back home with her father, the lawyer Atticus, his sister Alexandra, and her childhood friend Henry (Hank), now her father’s assistant in the latter’s practice in the town, she asks for the local news. In the ensuing conversation, reference is made to national events.
Atticus asks Jean Louise how much of “what’s going on down here” gets into the New York papers: “I mean, the Supreme Court’s bid for immortality.” “Oh, that.Well, to hear The Post tell it, we lynch ‘em for breakfast … I haven’t paid any attention to it save for the bus strikes and that Mississippi business.Atticus, the state’s not getting a conviction in that case was our worst blunder since Pickett’s Charge.” “Yes, it was.I suppose the papers made hay with it?” “They went insane.” “And the NAACP?” “I don’t know much about that bunch …”
Without the background information provided earlier, these elliptical references could leave many modern readers bemused and scuttling to the internet to research the date of the authorship of the book and what were the exact events referred to. Although referred to again – and providing the only explanation for the revelations the book describes – these nationally significant events are never once explained any further in the book, though they are referred to again by the author and their significance for the local community and themselves is discussed in detail by the book’s chief characters.
Controversy surrounding recent publication
Why is it a controversial book today, when all the events covered are now (apparently) safely in the past rather than the subject of ongoing heated debates and struggles? The struggles which later, in the sixties, were to cause the death of many of those involved, from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King and from Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot by a state trooper while taking part in a peaceful demonstration in Marion, Alabama 1965 and Unitarian Minister James Reeb from Boston killed by a white group in Selma, Alabama during the Selma marches for equal voter registration in March 1965, to the student volunteers murdered in Mississippi in 1964 and the countless, nameless others?
The burning issue is whether Harper Lee herself ever agreed to the second book’s publication. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. It showed events in Maycomb (same town, same characters as this book) in the 1930s, when Jean Louise’s father Atticus defended a black man who was wrongly accused by a white woman of rape. Events are seen through the eyes of Scout and her elder brother Jem.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is the hero – a knight in shining armour, trying his best to even a very uneven playing field. After To Kill a Mockingbird was published, it was an immediate success and led to its author receiving many prizes and awards over the ensuing years. She never spoke at award ceremonies, saying “Well, it is better to be silent that to be a fool”. She never wrote another book, either. (See Theatre: To Kill a Mockingbird , Proletarian, August 2013)
In a 2011 interview with an Australian newspaper, Rev Dr Thomas Lane Butts said Lee now lives in an assisted-living facility, wheelchair-bound, partially blind and deaf, and suffering from memory loss.Butts also shared that Lee told him why she never wrote again: “Two reasons: one, I won’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.” ( Miss Nelle in Monroeville by Paul Toohey, Sunday Telegraph [Australia], 31 July 2011)
Despite her own advanced years, Ms Lee’s elder sister Alice was her guardian angel in her later years, after Lee’s own faculties and judgement became impaired. Alice protected Lee from all those who would bother or exploit her. It has been said of Lee that she would sign anything put before her by a person whom she trusted. She felt she could trust Alice.
Then, just two-and-a-half months after Alice’s death, there came the announcement from Lee’s lawyers of the publication of a second, ‘lost’ book. In fact, the book was not lost, but stored away. It was not, as some apologists for the publishers have suggested, the third book of an intended trilogy, but the first, unedited, draft of Lee’s first novel.
The publishers Harper Collins, the law firm acting for Lee and the potential beneficiaries of Harper Lee’s estate (she never married) must all have seen the dollar signs and realised the immense interest that there would be in a new book by Harper Lee. That is how the idea was sold to the public: as a ‘sequel’ to To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was a blatant lie.
When you read Go Set a Watchman, it is obvious that it was not written as a sequel to Mockingbird, as many of the childhood incidents recounted in its pages are also to be found in Mockingbird, with some passages repeated word for word. The BBC abridgement left out all of the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood and just dealt with the events of her return home in the summer of 1954 – the year of the final ruling of the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Brown v The Board of Education, which declared segregation in education to be illegal–in this way making it a more coherent story.
The book’s publication was accompanied by a massive amount of hype. Publication day was announced well in advance and booksellers opened at one minute past midnight on the day to allow queueing fans to purchase a copy of the new book without delay. The Times reported that one disgruntled buyer of the book, having complained to the publishers in the USA, had been promised a refund by the publisher’s CEO – a recognition that a con trick had been played upon the unsuspecting public.
Not everyone was fooled by the hype or convinced by the lawyers’ response to queries as to whether Ms Lee had given her informed consent to the publication of her early novel, that she was “happy as hell” about it. Friends were concerned that the publication of the early draft might damage the reputation of To Kill a Mockingbird. The son of Gregory Peck (the actor who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus Finch in the 1962 film of the book and who with his family had become close friends with Ms Lee) said he was prepared to go and see Ms Lee in person, but it seems that access to Ms Lee is closely guarded and it is hard to argue against the premise that it is in her interest that she should now be protected from the press and the kind of furore that the publication of her early draft has provoked.
The value of Go Set a Watchman
So much for the controversy surrounding the book; what of the book itself? Is it worth reading? Does it have any merit in its own right? When Go Set a Watchman was first written, its original editor at JB Lippincott Company (later bought by Harper & Row, which became Harper Collins, the current publishers of both novels) was a person whose professional name was Tay Hohoff. She wrote later that “the spark of a true writer flashed in every line”. Her view of the book, however, was that it was not fit for publication, being more a collection of anecdotes than a finished novel. She advised Ms Lee on extensive alterations, advising her to concentrate on the childhood memories of the heroine, Jean Louise (Scout).
Ms Lee has said of this long process, which she evidently found emotionally wearing at times: “As a first-time writer, I did as I was told.” The end result was To Kill a Mockingbird, much of which is firmly based in the reality and history of Ms Lee’s own family and childhood, though it is not an autobiography or even a memoir but has been refined into something more universal and timeless, even while being firmly rooted in a very specific time and place: that is the mark of great literature, which Mockingbird undoubtedly is.
What is it that Ms Lee wished to say about Alabama in particular and the world in general when she wrote her book? The book looks at social inequality based on race and the injustices that arise directly from institutionalised racial prejudices. These prejudices impel all parties along certain roads, will they or nil they, so that, like the characters in a Greek tragedy, they have little control over their own destiny.
That applies in Mockingbird as much to the young white woman who alleges rape (to cover up her spontaneously friendly overtures to the helpful black field hand) as it does to the young black man himself. Does Go Set a Watchman add to or detract from the earlier, finished book? From a reputational point of view it probably detracts rather than enhances the reputation of Mockingbird and on reading it one can see why the genuine friends of Ms Lee were very worried about its publication.
In their view, the manuscript of Watchman should have been quietly donated to an academic institution for scholars to read in order to obtain greater insight into the creative process behind Mockingbird, while the text itself could remain in obscurity.
Why the concern? In the original book, Atticus is seen through his children’s eyes and to them he is a hero of god-like stature. He takes on the defence of the young black man in the teeth of the disapproval of the white community and works hard for his acquittal and then for his survival, albeit without ultimate success. Everyone who reads Mockingbird reveres and loves Atticus. Atticus’s reputation does not, however, survive unscathed from Go Set a Watchman.
In Watchman –ie, in the original version of Mockingbird – the trial that is at the heart of the finished book is referred to only in passing, by way of a contrast to the present and not in any detail. At the heart of Watchman is Jean Louise’s disillusionment when, at the age of 26, she finally is forced to face the fact that her father is not the god-like figure she has always revered and relied on as keeper of her conscience (the ‘watchman’ of the title), but a mere mortal with feet of clay, who does things of which she vehemently disapproves. In particular, taking part in the supremacist activities that were her birth community’s reaction to the movement to end segregation in the south.
Your reviewer will not spoil the story by revealing all the details of the plot as it is recommended that you read the book, notwithstanding the murky dealings surrounding its publication – in the circumstances, you may prefer to borrow rather than buy a copy.
What is valuable about the book is both the quality of the writing – moving and funny by turn, notwithstanding the meandering plot – and the unrelenting spotlight it turns upon society in 1950s Alabama. It is fascinating to compare this book, which was written in the late 1950s about contemporary white society, with the recent book The Help, which dealt with the same society in the 1960s, but was written at a safe distance of 50 years, as a period piece. (See Film: The Help , Proletarian, December 2011)
A portrait of white southern society
Harper Lee was writing about a deeply insecure society that was struggling to hold onto its old values. The Finch family were one of the founding families of Maycomb and as such had been important landowners and slave owners. That is expressly acknowledged in Watchman, though the not in Mockingbird. This makes them part of the upper stratum of Maycomb society, even though the slaves have been freed, the plantation is gone and the plantation house is now owned by an exclusive local men’s club. The last piece of the family’s land – Finch’s Landing, on the riverside – has been sold off just before Jean Louise’s latest visit home in 1954.
The big house in the centre of town where she spent her childhood years had also been sold before the time in which Watchmanis set and had become an ice cream parlour, while Atticus and his sister now occupy a smaller house further out of town. Even so, the Finch name still means a lot. Her father had been elected uncontested to the State Legislature for years and is now the Chairman of the Citizen’s Council, newly formed to organise resistance to desegregation.
Jean Louise’s aunt has firm ideas about how she should dress when out in town, but her friend Hank observes that if she chooses to flout convention and wear her slacks, special allowance will be made for her eccentricity, since she is a Finch. Hank, by contrast, is very aware that since he comes from a poor background, he must never put a foot wrong if he is to find and keep the acceptance of his fellow townsmen.
When she suggests to her aunt that she might marry Hank, her aunt is adamant that he is not suitable. Although he is a lawyer and is being coached by Atticus to succeed to Atticus’ law practice, in her aunt’s view he has ideas above his station, as both his mother and (absent) father were poor.
Even though his mother worked hard in order to be able to send him to public school, Hank only got a college education thanks to the army after the war, and his later advancement was thanks to Atticus. Alexandra avers that: “No Finch ever married the child of red-necked white trash.” Her ideas are as outdated as the whalebone corsets she continues to wear, but they are more acceptable to Maycomb society than are Jean Louise’s.
Supporters and opponents of segregation
Her aunt organises a ‘Coffee’ for Jean Louise, to which all the respectable young women of her age and class are invited. Jean Louise, however, has grown away from the companions of her teenage years and is out of touch with them. She relishes life in New York, with its racial and cultural mix, and has no sympathy for the young matron who describes her horror, on visiting New York, at finding herself sitting next to an African-American in a diner. She muses that if she marries Hank she would have to mix with these women, with whom she has nothing in common.
Yet she has one maxim so deeply ingrained it feels like instinct: “Love who you will, but marry your own kind,” and, to her at least, if not to her aunt, Hank is her own kind, though she loves him only as a dear friend. However, all such ideas of marriage are banished when she finds Hank, with Atticus, actively working to obstruct desegregation.
Jean-Louise feels that she cannot share a bed with someone who does not share her ideas and ideals. She muses that she has been born colour-blind and that it is no longer possible to live on the old terms of (apparent) mutual toleration between the races in Maycomb. Recent events have polarised and driven apart even those among the black and white communities who previously had found a modus vivendi, such as her father and his former black housekeeper Calpurnia, who had acted as surrogate mother to the children after their mother’s death soon after Jean-Louise was born.
Jean-Louise berates her father, when she confronts him with her disgust at his apparent toleration of racism, that he ought to have re-married an empty-headed young white woman who could have brought her up as a lady in Maycomb terms, rather than allow her to live as a tomboy (wearing only overalls and never a skirt until adolescence) and leave her to be brought up by a black housekeeper whom she grew to love and respect.
She had learnt to look on all people equally, knowing her neighbours by name and occupation, regardless of their race. She was not aware that she was allowed a special dispensation as a motherless child and a Finch, and now she found herself at odds with her community, unable to conform to its expectations and values.
Marxists will certainly empathise with Jean-Louise’s discovery that once you have understood a truth about society you cannot unlearn it. The reader can find out how she deals with this dilemma by reading Go Set a Watchman.
Her editor did Ms Lee a great service. Not only did she guide Ms Lee until she had honed her book to the near perfection that is Mockingbird, but she also prevented the publication of the views of the mature Jean Louise in a form that would have made it impossible for Ms Lee to return to her birth community and resume living there as an honoured member of society. If people saw the theme of Mockingbird as being only the good work of Atticus, and not the racism and injustice that gave rise to it, that was their affair. The message was there for those who cared to see it.
Racism has yet to be abolished
In 2015, however, Watchmanseems nowhere near as shocking as it would have been in 1958, when first submitted for publication. As with Mockingbird, The Help and all period novels about racism in the USA, people are able to say: ‘That was then, but it is different now.’ Different it may be, but the rise of a small black middle class and the first black president (though Obama is not from African-American roots himself) cannot obscure the fact that there is still massive racial discrimination in the country.
The US has the highest prison population of any developed country and young black men are disproportionately represented in the prisons as they are also disproportionately represented among the poorest sections of society – facts which are not unrelated to each other. The prisons are often brutal, while young black men on the streets are vulnerable to extra-judicial killing by the police, who are infected by the fear of ‘the other’ in an America where communities live mainly separate lives, official desegregation notwithstanding.
Racism always has been and still is invariably used as an essential tool and accompaniment of imperialism. Paul Robeson memorably commented that only in the USSR did he feel for the first time that he was truly a human being of equal value to all other human beings.
In the 1930s, in the 1950s and in the 2010s racism persists, not just in the southern states of the USA but here in Britain and everywhere else that imperialism holds sway. We must join all our forces to fight imperialism wherever we happen to live, regardless of our ethnicity or country of origin, as that is the only way the blight of racism can be ended.