100 Best Novels Guardian list, 20th century Literature, American literature, Book review, Harper Lee, TKAM, To Kill a Mockingbird, Uncategorized

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960

The subset of people who have read ‘Go Set a Watchman’ but have not read’To Kill a Mockingbird’ must be pretty small, and until this week included me, embarrassed although I am to admit it. Yes, until this week I had not read this the ultimate American classic. I had seen the film, of course, and the stage play, but somehow never got round to the novel, until now. zzzzzzzzzzzzz

I can completely understand why the novel holds its place in the affections of American readers. It captures a lost America, and shows that while its passing is on the whole a good thing, particularly in terms of civil rights, something has been lost as well.

I wanted to address the question as to whether ‘Go Set a Watchman’ has in any way had a negative effect on the reputation of ‘TKAM’. I think this debate is based on a false premise, namely that ‘GSAW’ is a sequel to ‘TKAM’. Certainly it was published later than the original novel, and is set around 20 years later. In the later novel, Atticus is no longer seen through the innocent eyes of a young daughter’s hero-worshipping eyes, but from those of a mature, travelled woman. Of course he is no longer on a pedestal, and a lifetime of living in the deep South has taken its toll on his tolerances. Civil rights had not stood still in that time either, and what was once a liberal position had become reactionary, simply by staying still as the world moved on.

But. I think that it is important to remember that ‘GSAW’ is, in terms of composition, the earlier novel. It is in fact the first draft of ‘TKAM’. Looked at that way, Atticus doesn’t become more reactionary, but more liberal and tolerant as he developed as a character in Lee’s imagination. We also owe thanks to Lee’s editor for this metamorphosis.

There is a charming innocence to ‘TKAM’, achieved in large part through Scout’s narration. She is disarmingly honest, kind, and in the main unspoiled by the prejudices and racism around her. It has still taken its toll, of course – she uses the n-word and other insulting racial epithets freely, and would prefer Atticus to have refused to defend Tom Robinson. Tom’s tragic, off stage death doesn’t seem to trouble her, although neither does Bob Ewell’s at the end of the novel. Lee never seems entirely sure whether the trial at the heart of the novel is her focus, or the story of the agoraphobe Boo Radley which is more prominent at the novel’s opening and close. She manages to weave the two stories together at the death but it is not so much as climax as an end.

I suspect the other primary reason for the novel’s enduring importance is that it contains so many platitudes. Children believe that all the problems of the world can be solved if only people were nice to one another, and that is the principal sentiment of the novel. I started to keep a track of the platitudes, but gave up after a while:

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.”

“real courage is, instead of … a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.

I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

“Atticus, he was real nice.””Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”
People are nice, once you get to know them. Never give up. Folks are all the same under their skin. This homespun philosophy gets a bit overly saccharine after a while. TKAM is a plea for tolerance, not only for the rights of black people to a fair hearing under the country’s justice system, but also for the traditions of the South. Many white people in the South had felt under attack since before the end of slavery, and Lee also offers these people a voice, less explicitly here than in ‘GSAW’, but unmistakeably nonetheless. Lee explained this is a rare commentary on her own novel once, saying:
“Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.” 
The heritage of all Southerners? Or all white Southerners? The idea that the Southern code of honor and conduct that led to mass lynchings, the KKK, and segregation was worth preserving despite everything is a challenge to the interpretation that this novel is a straightforward advocate for the civil rights cause. There is a risk that we sentimentalise the novel, and see it as a simple anti-racism tract, when the portrayal of the South is more nuanced than that.
I’d love to know if you agree?
20th century Literature, American literature, Book review, Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee, TKAM, To Kill a Mockingbird

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

“Go Set a Watchman” (and what a great title by the way) was an early, rejected draft of the story that was to eventually become “To Kill a Mockingbird” (or “that Mockingjay book” as overheard in Waterstones recently. In Watchman, 26 year-old Scout returns from New York to spend time with her family in Maycomb, Alabama. The contrast between urban, progressive New York, and the backward, sister marrying deep South, is the source of much of the dramatic tension of the novel. Scout discovers by chance that her father and family are involved in a racist movement to ensure the black community remains in its place. This movement has sinister, violent undertones. The N word is used freely by its supporters. Scout passinately confronts her father, who refuses to apologise, but tells her she is wrong. Her uncle, a doctor, repeats this message, and when she gets upset violently hits her. This calms her down in the book’s most upsetting scenes. The novel ends with the suggestion that Scout has come to terms with her family’s racism, and may even stay in Maycomb.

Much of the reaction to the novel, and speculation as to its long delayed appearance, centres on the alleged transformation of the character of Atticus Finch, from noble defender of the oppressed black peoples of Maycomb, to a racist Klan supporter. Watchman’s hero is far more human than the paragon of TKAM. This confused response is wrong on two counts. Firstly, as Watchman makes very clear, the Atticus Finch of the second novel is the same man as in the first. There has been no major transformation, no becoming racist due to a traumatic incident or gradual embitterment. Yes, the times have changed, and the circumstances with them, but Atticus was and is a decent racist. How can the brave defender of a wrongly accused black man be a racist? Simply this – he believes in the rule of law, believes black people have a right to a fair trial, but he doesn’t believe they have the right to much more than that. Certainly not equal rights, equal education, the right to have proper democractic representation. Worst still, while Scout is appalled by Atticus’s association with disgusting racists preaching race war, she still has racist views herself. She agrees with Atticus for example when he explains that co-education threatens the Southern way of life. She challenges effectively the idea that mixed relationships will lead to mongrelization of the white race – are black men so irresistible to white women that they have to be legally restrained from marrying them? – but believes the consitution should not compel people to share their schools if they don’t want to.

Realistically, this is probably as progressive you would get for white people in the 1950’s, and even then Scout’s liberalism can be traced not just to her father’s decency, but her “corruption” by New York progressivism.

Why is the Finches’s racism so apparent in Watchman, but not Mockingbird? I believe the main difference is the context. In 1930’s Southern USA, the civil rights movement didn’t really exist. (This is not my specialist subject to say the least, but I think that’s right). In the 1950’s the NAACP was on the march, organising, and challenging the institutional barriers which left most black people as simply released slaves, with few if any political rights. Watchman prefigures the battles to come over civil rights, and shows us how threatened and scared some white communities were. Not everyone in the South who opposed civil rights were monsters, even if their behaviour and language was monstrous.

This book provides us with a different way of looking at Mockingbird, and is worth reading for that reason alone. Lee shows some skill in her handling of the portraits of the Maycomb community, capturing a sense of time and place. The characters emerge strongly, recognisable and consistent with their later (but also earlier) incarnations in Mockingbird. Whether Lee’s editor, who encouraged her to shelve this book and re-create the novel based on the flashback, was right or wrong is a meaningless question – we now have both books, and if Mockingbird is slightly diminished in the eyes of some readers, there’s little that can be done about this now. I suspect Mockingbird is resilient enough to emerge form this unscathed, with Watchman becoming a footnote in future GCSE and A Level reference books. Which would be a pity, because I also suspect Watchman is the more accurate, less romantic portrayal of the two.