The Paradoxical Legacy of Harper Lee

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Now that she is gone, is it naive to believe that Nelle Harper Lee’s legacy is bound to the sum of her writings, that her output determines her place in the literary afterlife? To stake her reputation on To Kill a Mockingbird alone seems unfair, if only because it is now as much a symbol of a peculiarly American attitude about racism as it is a literary artifact. Nor does it seem right that Lee’s reputation should be determined by her carpetbagging publishers and agents and attorney, who, from the beginning, exploited her prodigious talents by treating her books as things to be molded and sold rather than carefully nurtured.

Now that she is gone, is it too much to ask that we measure Lee’s legacy against her own ambitions? For the last year, we’ve read a number of pieces that continue the long tradition of infantilizing the woman and her work, mostly by treating her as if she is an empty vessel for our adulation of Mockingbird, or our excitement or displeasure about the publication of Go Set Set a Watchman. In short, we still read Harper Lee in the way that her publishers always wanted us to: as the face behind an inspiring novel on race relations in the American South, one that was later remade into a beloved Hollywood movie; and as a recluse whose mystery depends on whether or not she secretly chose to wield her pen for a second or third time.

Not long before she went dark to the public, just four years after the publication of Mockingbird and two years after the film version, Lee recast her literary ambitions in a 1964 interview with Roy Newquist, the editor of a book titled Counterpoint. Perhaps because of the rarity of such encounters with Lee, or maybe because her responses are characteristically quotable, the Newquist interview has become a fount of source material for thousands of articles that seek to embellish her mystery. Still, it is rarely read with care, and her stated ambition — to be “the Jane Austen of South Alabama” — is quoted more than her explanation of it:

I would like, however, to do one thing, and I’ve never spoken much about it because it’s such a personal thing. I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world. I hope to do this in several novels to chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to the Gothic, as opposed to Tobacco Road, as opposed to plantation life.

As you know, the South is still made up of thousands of tiny towns. There is a very definite social pattern in these towns that fascinates me. I think it is a rich social pattern. I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing.

Reading this now, it seems unsurprising that Harper Lee would soon disappear into Monroeville. There is something here of the ethnographer’s desire to lose herself in her subject — earlier in the interview she refers to local “Celtic blood and influence” and a regional “tribal instinct”; in this respect, Lee’s self-eliding ambition to record and document Monroeville isn’t altogether different from Elena Ferrante’s commitment to an anonymous chronicling of Naples.

The question is whether, in the wake of To Kill a Mockingbird’s success, this project was any longer possible. The enormous response to Mockingbird, which left Lee in a state of “sheer numbness,” which she likened to a “quick and merciful death,” likewise upended Monroeville and turned it into its own media representation — it became, in part, Maycomb. And the success of Mockingbird was not an inevitability; it was rather the result of her publisher’s insistence on adapting her first efforts at political and literary complexity into a brilliant, cinematic, and politically viable story about race in the American South.

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If we’re going to consider the legacy of Harper Lee, we have to acknowledge Go Set a Watchman, and this acknowledgement must be predicated on the understanding that it is not Mockingbird’s sequel or prequel; it is, as Lee herself described, its “parent.” It contains wholesale passages that were later reworked for Mockingbird. But to say that this makes it inferior to Mockingbird is to miss an important point: it is more ambitious, formally and politically, than the book Lee later produced at the behest of her editor and publisher. In Mockingbird, Lee moves through her plot with cinematic flourishes that were easily emulated in the later film; in Watchman, her formal movements, though not always successful, recall William Faulkner and Marilynne Robinson in their attempts to paint with time. Likewise, in Mockingbird, Atticus is a cinematic hero, a model citizen, a white savior who embalms himself in American lore after losing a trial. In Go Set a Watchman, he is a bigot whose virulent, racist propaganda betrays his own Christ complex decades after he wins a trial.

Would Mockingbird have become a film starring Gregory Peck, would it have made its way into more than 70 percent of American schools, if it had been the story that Harper Lee wrote first? If it had mirrored her own difficult relationship with her father, A.C. Lee, who was to some degree the model for Atticus? Many were surprised to learn that Atticus had “turned racist” in Go Set a Watchman, but the man depicted there bore a closer resemblance to Lee’s own father. Any reader of Lee’s unofficial biographies, in fact, will learn that A.C. Lee’s views about Southern blacks weren’t those of an enlightened liberal; it was only after the publication of Mockingbird that he came to endorse the smoldering Civil Rights movement. As Lee’s biographer Charles J. Shields explains in Mockingbird, “A.C. Lee changed his views about race relations during the remainder of the 1950s. And Nelle watched as her father, formerly a conservative on matters of race and social progress, became an advocate for the rights of Negroes.”

To this end, the prehistory of To Kill a Mockingbird is revealing. In his book, Shields also describes the transformation of Lee’s first attempt at a novel — a book she called Go Set a Watchman — into the intensely workshopped and rewritten final product later known as To Kill a Mockingbird. After presenting her first draft to agents Annie Laurie Williams and Maurice Crain, a husband and wife team who handled film rights and literary properties respectively, Lee was slowly ushered into the world of New York Publishing. But first Williams had Lee change the novel’s title. He thought the grandly biblical (and therefore Southern) title Go Set a Watchman “sounded like the novel had to do with clocks or something.” He told her to change it to Atticus. She agreed.

From there she was famously given over to the editors at J. B. Lippincott & Co., who worked with her to gentrify Atticus into the more politically palatable and conventionally structured Mockingbird. The initial meeting sounds more like a medical procedure than an editorial intervention:

To Nelle, the meeting was excruciating. The editors talked to her for a long time about Atticus, explaining that, on the one hand, her “characters stood on their own two feet, they were three-dimensional.” On the other, the manuscript had structural problems: it was “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” They made a number of suggestions about how Nelle could address their concerns. Turning her head back and forth to acknowledge the remarks from this roundtable dissection, Nelle obediently nodded and replied in her gentle Alabama voice, “Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am.” She assured them that she would try. Finally they wished her luck on a revision and hoped to see her again.”

Still worse:

At the end of the summer, Nelle resubmitted her manuscript to Hohoff, who had volunteered to work with her. “It was better. It wasn’t right,” Hohoff realied. “Obviously, a keen and witty and even wise mind had been at work; but was the mind that of a professional novelist? There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning.” Nevertheless, Hohoff was convinced that Nelle’s willingness to accept criticism and her demonstrated work ethic meant that the book could be molded into shape… The engine of this unifying story had to include continuing tension arising from a major conflict, too, enough to keep the reader turning the novel’s pages.

The remodeling of Watchman into Mockingbird sparked a number of ironies. At the same time that Lee worked tirelessly to make the book into one publishers in New York would accept, she also came into a fuller expression of her impossibly warm and fluid idiom. And the lived-in, unforgettable Maycomb that emerged — one of the best rendered places in postwar American fiction — shocked Lee’s editors and publishers (who had thought of her as a precocious neophyte) so much that they visited Monroeville to confirm the genuineness of her depiction. Maybe, too, it was Lee’s final victory that the novel has become a paradigm for childhood innocence lost; on this score, Mockingbird’s quality can be defended against critics like Flannery O’Connor, who called it a “children’s book.” It isn’t Lee’s fault that, even today, readers think the narrator of the novel is the younger Scout and not the older Jean Louise.

Nevertheless, another irony of the streamlining of Watchman into Mockingbird is that it inverted its meaning entirely. In Lee’s draft (again, Go Set a Watchman), racism is thoroughgoing and structural; it lives inside even those men — Atticus — who once saved Southern blacks from prosecution; in Mockingbird, Southern racism is merely the the scourge of unenlightened white people, and not of noble men like Atticus. For this reason, though it is messier and less aesthetically pleasing, Watchman is scarier than Mockingbird. Not even Jean Louise, who defiantly argues in the face of rampant paternalism, is totally absolved of racism.

Yet the strangest irony of all is that before her New York editors helped Watchman become the more digestible Mockingbird, Lee excoriated the tendency of cosmopolitan liberals to offer easy answers about Southern racism. And she did so in the draft of Go Set a Watchman. Near the end of the novel, Jean Louise considers her ambivalence about the moral high-mindedness of New Yorkers:

New York. New York? I’ll tell you how New York is. New York has all the answers. People go to the YMHA, the English-Speaking Union, Carnegie Hall, the New School for Social Research, and find the answers. The city lives by slogans, isms, and fast sure answers. New York is saying to me right now: you, Jean Louise Finch, are not reacting according to our doctrines regarding your kind, therefore you do not exist. The best minds in the country have told us who you are. You can’t escape it, and we don’t blame you for it, but we do ask you to conduct yourself within the rules that those who know have laid down for your behavior, and don’t try to be anything else.

It isn’t hard to see why Lee’s New York editors would want a story they could sell to Hollywood instead of Watchman, a novel that implicates them in its final stretch. On the other hand, maybe they were following Lee where she wanted to go; after all, in its final scene, Jean Louise nearly acquits Atticus (“I think I love you very much.”), thus forfeiting the novel’s hard-earned complexity. We’ll never know what the novel could have been otherwise, were it edited instead of undermined.

Nor will we ever know why Harper Lee allowed her more complex vision of Southern racism in Watchman to be transformed. Maybe, in the end, it was a matter of craft; despite their political differences, it is fair to say that Watchman is the sloppier book, Mockingbird the work of a better craftsman. And Lee revered craftsmanship:

I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing, and especially in the American theatre, is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this — the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea. It takes time and patience and effort to turn out a work of art, and few people seem willing to go all the way… I see a great deal of sloppiness and I deplore it. I suppose the reason I’m so down on it is because I see tendencies in myself to be sloppy, to be satisfied with something that’s not quite good enough.

But we do know that the spectacle caused by Mockingbird’s success made it nearly impossible for Lee to write at home, to pursue her project of documenting and recording life in her town — of becoming the “Jane Austen of South Alabama.” After returning to Monroeville, in the years following the publication of her novel, Lee confessed that she could no longer write there:

I’ve found I can’t write on my home grounds. I have about 300 personal friends who keep dropping in for a cup of coffee. I’ve tried getting up at 6, but then all the 6 o’clock risers congregate.

Any serious reckoning of Harper Lee’s legacy should take this into account: that she began her career as a formidable if raw talent with no shortage of ambivalence about easy answers, whether they came from Southern patriarchs or cosmopolitan intellectuals; that she dropped this complexity, to at least some degree, in favor of craft; and that the result of this craft was a streamlined American masterpiece, an unprecedented success that made it ever more impossible for her to fulfill her later ambitions. There are still no easy answers for Harper Lee.