To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most read and most beloved books ever, though it garners criticism as well. Certainly it’s on the very top of my book list of personal favorites. I read it in about 1965 or ’66, then reread it immediately, again a few years later when I was in college, and during my two sons’ high school years so we could discuss the book. I’ve read it twice since, each time discovering something wondrous, gaining more insight, and always moved by the story.
It’s told from the point of view of Scout, the very young daughter of a small town 1950’s Southern lawyer. You don’t have to know much about American bus routes to grasp that it concerns racial prejudice, social inequality, and a legal-political tradition that safe-harbors injustice. It’s also about family dynamics and the social clumsiness of children who discover that the adult world is dirtier than theirs. It presents a criminal case where a black man is found guilty for a white man’s crimes. You have to be living inside your vacuum cleaner not to know that the characters were sketched from people Lee knew in the Alabama hamlet where she grew up, especially that Dill, Scout and Jem’s childhood friend, stands in for Truman Capote.
One of the most unusual characters is the shy recluse, Boo Radley. His reasons for hiding from the public appear strange if not bizarre, and augur Harper Lee’s adult voluntary social seclusion. Something from Boo’s past keeps him captive. The something in Lee’s life was the dizzying adulation of the world thrust upon her at publication of the book. The excessive stir caused Lee to refuse to write or publish another book in her lifetime or to talk about Mockingbird. She’d done the celebrity thing and found it too painful to forget or repeat.
Which brings me to the tale of Go Set a Watchman, the book miraculously found by Lee’s trustee – after Lee’s protective sister, Alice, died, and when Lee herself was aged, frail, ill, blind, deaf, and may have been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Miracle of all miracles, the trustee found the secreted manuscript just as the very private Harper Lee was eager to seek new publicity and earn millions. Wonder of wonders, wasn’t it?
If you’ve managed to keep away from all things front page breaking news for the past ten years, you may not know about the background of the Watchman. It wasn’t a newly written manuscript that Lee wanted to publish – it was the original first draft of Mockingbird as presented to her original editor, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff knew the story as first written was not ready for publication but saw in its ragged genesis a gemstone ready for polish. With Hohoff’s assistance, Lee rewrote the first draft, (took a long time) and after several new title tries, settled on the memorable To Kill a Mockingbird.
Two things must be considered. The first is an admonition for the writer-in-waiting: your book, my book, is not ready, it’s not done, and when attentive people offer advice: put your ego in the shoebox, listen well, take notes, make appropriate changes, and get the job done. Just as Lee did. She might not have anticipated the painful glare of the limelight, but she was a willing rewriter. So am I. So should you be.
Second thing for me is this. I will not read Go Set a Watchman. Clearly Lee did not want the early draft, rejected by Hohoff as amateur and unsuitable in places, to be read by anyone else. It was a work in progress; the finished work as published was the one intended for the public eyes. Lippencott, the initial publisher, made plenty on Mockingbird. It’s interesting for writers to read another writer’s early attempts and to compare a finished product with a draft. But only if the writer is willing.
If the finished book promoted ideas of honor and compassion, I find it shameful and craven to read the early iteration, and I don’t believe for a moment that Lee authorized its publication. New trustee and cohort misappropriated Lee’s manuscript when she was too feeble to advocate for herself. Trustee, cohort, and publisher chose to capitalize on Lee’s name and stature in order to roll their bottom line into the big black column. I won’t help boost their bucks.
We will never really know if To Kill a Mockingbird set back Harper Lee’s literary career by stifling her ability to write another story, or if she really so dreaded all the public slathering that she couldn’t bear to tempt it again. I’ve long been disappointed not to be able to read another of her books, and if I can’t really understand her decision, (try to make me stop writing, just try) I surely respect it. I believe in social justice, equality, and opportunity for all people, and this book shows how a few citizens of a little town in Alabama stood up for what was right, even in the midst of threats and violence. I am still standing for same.
My favorite line from the book is the entire book. If you’ve never read it, go read it. If you haven’t read it in a while, go read it again.
To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since its publication in 1960. It was selected by American Librarians as the best novel of the twentieth century, is required reading in Great Britain and Canada as in most American high schools, and has been translated into more than forty languages. Don’t read it for all that adulation. Read it because it mirrors the tragic renewal of the same narrow, bigoted mind set of the last century blossoming in all it ugly bullying in this one as well. Read it because few other books will touch you as deeply and permanently.
Other books that were serious contenders for K:
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
I look forward to learning about your favorite K fiction books.
Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Collins