To review Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in 2016, the year of the author's death, is to read this Pulitzer prize novel from 1960 against the background of what we know of the novel that Lee wanted published and which came out as Go Set a Watchman in 2015. Those are the only two novels that Lee ever had published and the very negative reaction, complete with gross examples of ageism against Lee, show just how much To Kill a Mockingbird, and more particularly the 1962 movie, has a grip on the public consciousness of white America. I have yet to read Go Set a Watchman, but so obsessive was the opinion writer and social media furore surrounding its publication that To Kill a Mockingbird can no longer be read in the same light.
Go Set a Watchman is about a young woman from New York returning on an annual a visit to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. She is forced to confront the differences between her new friends in the Northeast and her hometown folk in the Deep South, including her boyfriend and father. A major part of the reaction of those who objected to the novel was about the character of her father, Atticus Finch, being changed from the noble battler against southern racism to being a campaigner against racial inclusion. In response many pointed out that To Kill a Mockingbird is an intensely white novel and that Atticus had always been a racist. Many student essays have been written down the years on the success of this 1960 novel being because it caught the spirit of the age as civil rights began to transform national politics. The problem with such essays was that it was not a civil rights novel, although thanks to Go Set a Watchman we now know that Lee had written the original as a civil rights novel. Most disturbing among the revelation that Go Set a Watchman was the novel Lee had wanted published is that a headstrong young woman, Jean Louise Finch, who objects to southern racism became the racist child, Scout, and the closest we come to a non-racist in the published novel is her father. Equally disturbing is the fate of the young woman who wrote the novel. Like so many women writers of the era she was pushed into writing a children's book, because grown up authorship was a male preserve that would be preserved at all costs.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a first person narrative by Scout of what happened to her between the ages of six and eight, or 1933-35. She is the daughter of a widowed lawyer and spends her days playing with her older brother Jem, who is ten when the novel opens, and their neighbour Dill (possibly based on Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote). The trial scene that Gregory Peck made famous in the movie is a small part of the novel, even though it was probably the editor's improbable rationale for asking for it to be rewritten as a children's story. The overriding theme of the novel is not racism, but growing up as a tomboy in a southern white family that held itself superior due to its former glory and expected its sons to be gentlemen and its daughters to be ladies. That the book became such a phenomenal success is due to Atticus Finch and the rape trial, but the novel is about Scout and it is baffling that with such a young protagonist that rape should be the key to the story. The bafflement is resolved by forgetting Gregory Peck and letting the novel speak for itself. It is a novel about a young girl coping with societal expectations of behaving like a lady and has nothing to do with the civil rights theme of the original novel, despite what generations of American schoolchildren have been taught.
Once the novel is allowed to be itself it is a gorgeously written story about a tomboy, with the main morality tale about confronting the prejudice against both poor whites and Boo Radley, the reclusive young man who lives on her street. African Americans live in another part of town and Scout and Jem's interaction with them comes via their maid, Calpurnia. There are elements of Scout being involved with that community when Calpurnia takes them to her church and when Scout, Jem, and Dill are looked after at the trial by the church's pastor, but those interactions seem to do little to alleviate the racist attitudes with which the young Scout has already been imbued. That church scene is the only part of novel that I can recall from my enforced reading of the novel as a 13-year-old pupil in a very white school in Northern Ireland. Those scenes notwithstanding this novel is almost as white as the upbringing I experienced, without the added excuse of a lack of ethnic diversity in the local population.
The success of To Kill a Mockingbird and the misconception that it is a testament to the civil rights movement says a lot about the deep-grained racism of white America against which Martin Luther King and others had to fight. I am delighted that the publication of Go Set a Watchman had begun to set the record straight about Harper Lee before her death.
© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved