“Erin,” you might be saying, “why wasn’t yesterday’s post about the momentous announcement of Harper Lee’s new novel? You are a high school English teacher, are you not? What could possibly trump that news?”
Well, my gentle readers, my utter lack of excitement comes from two major areas: my feelings about the original novel, and my feelings about a sequel 50+ years later. And while I thought about writing an enthusiastic post about the hot, new Magic Mike sequel teaser–and, oh, does it tease–I decided to highlight my reasons for not being nearly as enthusiastic to this To Kill a Mockingbird sequel. And it’s not just because there’s a marked lack of strip-dancing Channing Tatum in it.
First, the personal. I’ve never taught Mockingbird. I did enjoy the novel just fine in high school, but it didn’t blow my mind or imprint on my heart or whatever it seems to do for so many others. It was good. The characters were interesting. But I never really got what the big deal was. Why was this novel, of all the novels of American literature or the English language, the most taught novel in American high schools? I’m still perplexed by that question.
When I got to grad school and started taking classes in literature pedagogy, the use of Mockingbird as the text to discuss racial issues in the U.S. infuriated me. It’s not that it doesn’t address the racism and injustice of the South. It certainly does. But from a white perspective. And in a situation where a white man must swoop in to save the black man, and even then the black man must be killed. This was the year 2000. There were plenty of beautifully written books addressing these racial conflicts from the perspective of African-Americans who saved themselves in various and interesting ways. Why was this outdated and, in my opinion, outclassed novel still the one being taught in high schools all over America and being used as the centerpiece for exploration of themes of race and racism?
So my personal interest in reading more about Scout and Atticus is low.
But that’s only half the issue.
The more important part of the issue is why now. Based on information that has been buried in press treatments of the publisher’s announcement, I doubt the honesty behind publishing this long-lost manuscript. Some key questionable information is highlighted in the Times article, “Harper Lee, Author of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Is to Publish a Second Novel.”
Admittedly, I’m not the most trusting of people when it comes to motivations within capitalist systems. Or rather, I trust that most people in a capitalist system, most of the time, are motivated mostly by making more money. So publishing a long-lost novel seems like someone finally has need of or the power to make more capital. Here’s where the article is illuminating, though it leaves off drawing any conclusions on its own. Check out this info from the article:
- Lee had to be convinced it was worth publication.
- The deal was negotiated by the president of HarperCollins and Lee’s lawyer for an undisclosed amount of money.
- Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 and has since lived in an assisted-living facility. Her sister and former lawyer, Alice Lee, died last fall. Alice protected her from unwanted public attention. In a letter made public from 2011, Alice Lee described her sister’s state for consent at the time as: “[she] can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”
- The HarperCollins people negotiated the deal through Lee’s current lawyer and never spoke to Lee directly. They believed it “wasn’t necessary.”
- For decades Lee has stayed out of public scrutiny but has been involved in numerous lawsuits which seem to show her interest in protecting her legacy and estate.
That’s a whole lotta fishy business surrounding the publication of this manuscript for what I can only imagine is a boatload of money. I hope the deal was negotiated on the up and up, but I question how reliable consent from Harper Lee can be at this point. And, honestly, the thought that she might have been exploited by the people she trusts turns my stomach sour.
This is going to be an unedited manuscript published for the public. Harper Lee has been traditionally protective of her privacy and legacy. Although the manuscript was only rediscovered last fall, it seems unlikely that Lee would want a legacy as strong as Mockingbird’s possibly undermined by an amateurish text that hasn’t seen revision for 55 years. Ideally, the manuscript will be seen as a draft, an early iteration to reflect on the process of drafting and revision, a novelty for fans, much like Lewis Carroll’s handwritten “Alice’s Adventures Underground,” but ultimately readers will compare it directly with Mockingbird, and I suspect it will fall short of expectations.