I didn’t want to do it to her… but I did it. I read Chapter One of Nelle Harper Lee's new/old book. The chapter was released a few days ago by the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by News Corp, also the parent company of the book’s publisher, HarperCollins. I mean, whuddidyouthink? Sometimes a manuscript, in the hand of one man, is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another.
I couldn’t help myself. On moral grounds, I didn’t preorder. Why not let our Lady of Letters go out in a more dignified fashion? But having taught TKAM many times, and not being able to count self-control among my virtues, I capitulated and read the first chapter.
And yes, it reads like the sophomoric fan fiction version of her more mature—and well edited—classic. It’s full of tired, easy phrases, stock portrayals and awkward tense construction—signs of a writing newby. But a sentence here and there hint at the sharp, brilliant writing in TKAM. And like seeing the hidden paint layers of a famous canvas, it’s fascinating. As for Atticus the racist—the fodder for much discussion on social media, largely by people who don’t seem to have read the book yet—that hasn’t come up in Chapter One. Perhaps it will offer a more unvarnished look at attitudes about race in the Jim Crow South among ‘progressive’ whites, than Atticus the hero. Lord knows we need more honest discussion.
I’ve been brought to tears by the poignancy and beauty of certain passages in To Kill a Mockingbird virtually every time I read them aloud to 8th graders, or they read them aloud to me. I’ve been stopped in my tracks over and over by a sentence, a paragraph, a description, a shift in point of view, thinking “How does she do that?” And yeah, each time I teach the book, I grapple afresh with how to tackle the sprinkling of anachronistic and offensive passages about race and gender and some problematic characterizations, without tamping down the deeply important message or the joy of the read. Harper Lee had a lot of it right, but she was a product of her time and place.
As for Watchman, everyone needs a good editor. Everyone needs time to develop as a writer. Our literary elders should be cared for, and their accomplishments honored and protected. Shame, shame, News Corp. Will I read the rest of it? It might be a little like shootin’ a mockingbird.