Antionette Kerr: Harper Lee sets the record straight
Despite recent criticisms of “Go Set a Watchman,” I eagerly anticipated the second installment of what had been rumored as Harper Lee’s “lost” novel.
The iconic author of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird” vowed she would never publish again after a few failed attempts. The author refused requests for interviews or public appearances. She was silent until the 2015 release of “Watchman.”
The highly publicized 2015 release had the world furious that “Watchman” threatened to taint the iconic image of lawyer Atticus Finch, a fictional character loosely based on Lee’s own father. Finch, like her father, represented black defendants in highly publicized criminal trials. His daughter, Scout, like Lee, grew up sneaking in to watch her father’s trials. Both stories are seen through the eyes of daughter Jean Louise Finch; “Mockingbird” from a 10-year-old perspective and “Watchman” at age 26.
I wanted to read “Watchman” simply because Lee decided to release the novel; she must have believed this part of the story needed to be told. Atticus Finch was a fictional character. Lee, the very reason why we lauded him a hero, had another perspective. I personally felt compelled to hear her side of the story.
After listening to the novel on CD, a friend encouraged me to read Randall Kennedy’s insightful review published in The New York Times on July 14. Kennedy referred to the writings of legal professor Monroe Freedman who published an article in The Legal Times that questioned the heroic status of court-appointed lawyer Atticus Finch.
Freedman’s opinion, which is being taken seriously now, seemed obscure. Kennedy wrote, “Freedman’s view, however, those considerations were not decisive in influencing Atticus Finch. Rather, Freedman inferred that Finch failed to oppose Jim Crow customs because he was at home with it. He told his children that the Ku Klux Klan was merely ‘a political organization’ and that the leader of the lynch mob was ‘basically a good man’ albeit with ‘blind spots along with the rest of us.’” To Freedman, Finch’s acts and omissions defined a lawyer who lived his life as a “passive participant” in “pervasive injustice.”
I didn’t mind learning the truth about old Mister Finch, but I refused to read a single review until I had listened to the “Watchman” audiobook. I also lowered my expectations knowing it would take nothing short of a mesmerizing narrative to convince me Lee’s sequel was worthy of comparison with her “Mockingbird.” I am biased against sequels.
The lingering suspicions that 89-year-old Lee was being manipulated to release the failed manuscript discovered by her new attorney, Tonja Carter, brought new details about publishers altering “Mockingbird” to make it more marketable. Lee confessed she was unsure of her talents when the first novel was published.
“I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told,” she admitted. “Mockingbird” had major edits to the story line, including several that made Finch appear to be more heroic. Perhaps the world needed him to be a hero when the book was released.
So I wondered what Lee thought the world needed to know in 2015? Why would she ruin our image of Atticus? I listened closely for what this great writer was trying to say and found nothing, at first. Disclaimer: I do not consider myself worthy of writing a review of “Go Set a Watchman,” but the first listen was uninspiring.
I couldn’t identify with Jean Louise Finch in the way I could with Scout back in “Mockingbird.” It was the same person but in “Watchman,” Scout seemed whiney and fussy about everything from her father, aunt and uncles, down to her own love life. It was difficult to focus on her anger with her father amongst all the conflicts. I couldn’t decide if she needed to go back to New York or get some counseling.
The characters were complicated in a way that never fully developed, and it’s impossible to end the “Watchman” with clear “rights” or “wrongs” for the victims of prejudice or the purveyors. The book rambles with observations about flawed people trying desperately to protect a way of life that was being challenged through what they deemed as the “interference” of government.
The literary world hasn’t been kind to “Watchman” (although the book sold more than 1.1 million copies in the first week). I initially couldn’t follow the novel, but after reading more about Lee, I returned to find what I was missing in Jean Louise Finch.
Nelle Harper Lee doesn’t need fame or fortune, or quite honestly, our opinions. The release of “Watchman” proves even if her body is feeble, her voice is as strong as ever. Perhaps she released this book to satisfy the young Harper Lee, an aspiring writer who moved to New York City and took a job as an airline reservation agent while pursuing a dream as a fiction writer. We may never know exactly why Lee called this her “evolution,” but it gives me great pleasure to know she found a way to tell her original “Watchman” story.
She finally shook off her fears of inferior writing and shared something as messy and as complicated as prejudice itself. The real hero of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was never supposed to be Atticus Finch, and Lee felt compelled (like a true Watchman) to reclaim her characters and set the record straight.
Antionette Kerr is a syndicated writer and author of “Just Sayin’: Conversations My Mother Would Never Let Me Have at a Southern Dinner Table.” You may email her at email@example.com.