To Discover a Mockingbird

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz

Photo Credit: Chris Gauthier/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Chris Gauthier/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I first heard of To Kill A Mockingbird when my ambitious eighth grade language arts teacher (and basketball coach) Mr. Harper assigned it. I was bored by the opening and never caught up but moved away before our first test or paper or whatever he intended to use to grade us.

In my junior year, we had to read a novel of our own choosing off a provided list of dead, white, American male authors. Thinking of how much I’d heard about Mockingbird in the last three years, I asked Mr. Garrett if I could choose it. He looked skeptical and asked if I’d read it before. I explained the situation and he decreed that Mockingbird was an acceptable choice. I read it within a week by skipping the dry “history of Maycomb County” that stopped me before. I did, however, enjoy the use of the name “John Taylor” because he was (and still is) the bassist for Duran Duran.

I own two copies of Mockingbird. I gave away my first copy (given to me by Mr. Harper with “John Taylor” underlined with a heart in the margin when it appeared) but I have the one I bought in college and a hardback that my husband gave me as a gift. I’m a fan but it’s not a book I reread obsessively. I recommend it but I don’t gush over it. I always respected that Lee said that she’d said all she had to say with a single work and that she had no intention of writing another novel. I understood her aversion to publicity and scrutiny. Writing is reviewed and criticized, particularly writing that becomes an essential part of the canon of American literature. Writers are also criticized for writing too much or too little, on the “wrong” topic, from an experience that isn’t their own, even for using a pen name (like Nelle Harper Lee did).

So when word came in February of 2015 that a “sequel” to Mockingbird would be published in the summer, I was as skeptical as my eleventh grade teacher had been. Lee was famous for being a literary one-hit wonder and for being unapologetic about her choice. Where was a sequel coming from if she already made her singular artistic statement? What would compel a nearly 90-year-old author of one 50-year-old book to publish again?

Short version: she didn’t. According to the New York Times and other sources, this was an effort primarily by her lawyer, her agent, and Harper Publishing to make a buck.

Initial reviews of Go Set A Watchman declared that Atticus Finch had been made into a racist, that Jem Finch was dead, and that Jean Louise (formerly Scout) was returning home after an unhappy relationship up north. When I read that, I thought how similar it sounded to work I’d done in that I experimented with altering locations, shifting character ages, and changing motivations. It became clear to me that what Tonja Carter “discovered” was no sequel but what we writers call a “discovery draft.” You write and you figure things out as you go. Sometimes you keep those early drafts, as Lee did, but if you’re exploring, your finished work will be very different from those early discovery drafts.

I couldn’t help but feel for Lee. Who wants first/early drafts out there for the world to see (unless you’re asking for feedback or offering it as educational material)? I also felt for people who pre-purchased what they were led to believe was a new work by a favorite author. What they got was a glimpse into how much work writing is. They saw why her editor sent back notes to Lee when she submitted Watchman for publication in 1957. It was the right suggestion to have Lee explore Jean Louise’s childhood, particularly her relationship with her father and the setting in which she grew up as “Scout.” When Lee followed this advice, we got the nearly flawless Mockingbird: the work Lee said spoke for her completely.

Reviewers came to recognize this. Bookstores began offering refunds. But the widespread realization that the book-loving public was duped didn’t stop people from changing their sons’ names from Atticus to something else as they believed that Atticus became a racist. Atticus Finch didn’t become a racist. He began as one and that wasn’t the Atticus Finch that Lee wanted the world to know. The man who sits in front of the jail reading while protecting his client from a lynch mob, who defended an innocent man even though he knew they would lose the case, who taught his children about fairness, justice, and compassion… that’s Atticus Finch. And his place as one of the greatest characters in literature remains unchanged.

When JD Salinger died in 2010, reports circulated that Salinger had continued to write while eschewing publication and publicity. Rumors that some of that work would be made available to the public—either as books or as donations of these manuscripts to libraries—remain rumors; speculation had been that we’d see what Salinger had been writing “between 2015 and 2020.” My guess is that, particularly given what we’ve seen happen with Mockingbird / Watchman, the Salinger trust will be selective about what happens with any of his work. Any books will be definite sequels or prequels, no “discovery drafts.” I honestly doubt anyone will be changing their children’s names from “Franny” “Zooey” or “Holden.” I certainly won’t.

There has been no direct statement from Harper Lee herself about Watchman nor should there be. She earned her right to be left alone and allow her work—her single work—to continue speaking for her.

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