I find it hard to believe that Harper Lee was actually in favour of publishing Go Set a Watchman, a rejected manuscript that lay among her papers for more than fifty years. Yet the book is now here and doing exactly the kind of damage that its wily author always felt it would. For a novelist, it’s one thing not to destroy a book and another thing to publish it, and the work they are calling the ‘publishing sensation of the year’ is merely a pre-hash of something that came to be known for its polished good nature. One could argue that every interesting book has an ugly sister – she lies buried beneath the puffed skirts of the drafts – and the publication of Go Set a Watchman could be considered a nice moment for the editor’s art. When it comes to it, the drafts won’t always shame you, but they’re likely to scotch the myth of effortless achievement, making it clear that talent isn’t always its own best judge. Truman Capote’s childhood friend – Harper Lee and Capote grew up in the same small town in Alabama – may have come to know, at last, that success breeds its own vices, not least of which is the market’s determination to sell imperfection in place of perfection when the stock is running low.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the famous novel. I like its prose and am easily persuaded by its gently nostalgic tone, its depiction of a sleepy Southern town and its nightly routines, neighbours who know one another, a parent who can make a richness of a child’s moral sense. The novel glows with soft light – too soft, some would say – but it yields a hard lesson. Time passes and bad things happen but decency and empathy draw you back. It’s a children’s story, really, not unlike The Railway Children and other daddy-obsessed narratives, but Mockingbird gains power by seeming so deeply hitched, as it might or might not have been, to a social upheaval and a time of change. Atticus Finch was the right everyman for the right time and Gregory Peck was his ideal embodiment.
A week after Labor Day in 1988, when I was twenty years old, I was with some fellow students in a Drive-Away car that we were supposed to be delivering to Los Angeles from Washington. We ignored the prescribed route, and instead drove south, entering Alabama just as Hurricane Florence was making landfall. We were on the 65 from Montgomery when the windscreen wipers started to fail and the radio was telling people in mobile homes to go to the community centres. I remember having a bad idea and a good idea in quick succession. The bad idea was that we stop at the next town for a drink – it turned out to be a dry county – but I made up for it by pointing the car in the direction of Monroeville, some distance away, feeling that Harper Lee’s original small town was sure to be a haven for the destitute and the generally luckless denizens of the earth.
The town was sleepy like the movie and I felt there must be a Boo Radley behind every peeling porch. We found beers and a place that sold things like gumbo and dishes of stew with black beans. And in the morning I went out looking for the mockingbirds and chinaberry trees and Aunt Sooks of legend, but nobody in the gas stations or the 7/11 knew much about writers. When I asked a man in the town square where a person would go if he wanted to call on Harper Lee, he smiled, and said she might be up around the golf club. There was still a lot of dust in the town, and, looking at the courthouse where Lee’s father had plied his trade, it occurred to me that the best characters in fiction are states of mind as much as human beings, and Atticus Finch was a small-town notion of democracy. I bought a hardback copy from a local store and asked the owner if there was anybody left in Monroeville who was like the man in the book. I can still see the bookseller handing me the package and looking out of the storefront window at the sky. ‘It’s like fine weather,’ he said. ‘Just when you think it’s gone you see it’s fixin’ to come back.’
With this new book, the character is now a man so crippled with arthritis that he can’t hold a razor. He can’t keep a conversation going with Jean Louise, alias Scout, the daughter beloved by him in our memory, without it involving slights about the life she now lives in New York. But what Atticus can hold – and does, rather extravagantly – is a set of views about black people that might put him on a par with George Wallace, a circumstance requiring you to suddenly un-imagine the noble lawyer, now no longer the decency machine who has long lived in your head as segregation’s mythic antidote. To some commentators, he is the same man, a Southern agrarian fighting against know-nothing diktats from the North. But that doesn’t square with the seeming decay of his tolerance into hate speech. The lawyer in Mockingbird wasn’t doing a job: he was living out an idea of how to live. Atticus doesn’t just stand up for a black man in the novel: he comes to see how the white supremacist mentality operates against a man on the basis of the man’s colour. And such a lawyer, after such an experience, would not be able to say the crude things we must now imagine him saying twenty years later. We were right to detect a lifelong disgustedness within Atticus, a sense of the animal cruelty in man that has to be opposed at all costs. That is what he has meant to several generations of schoolchildren, all fans of Harper Lee. She created a character who overcame the bullying traditions of local prejudice in order to support what is right. It’s something we all might do, and it’s the reason the book is a set text all over the world. Yet we now have to think of Atticus as a director of the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, a not entirely hooded collective dedicated to the rights of white people.
‘Citizens’ council? In Maycomb?’ Jean Louise heard herself repeating fatuously. ‘Atticus?’
Alexandra said: ‘Jean Louise, I don’t think you fully realise what’s been going on down here.’
Atticus still represents a black man in a rape case, and he gets him off, but ‘after the verdict, [Finch] … walked home, and took a steaming bath.’ And now he stands at the table in the courtroom next to a legal colleague who ‘spewed [racist] filth from his mouth’. Later on, the decency machine grinds to a complete halt as Atticus unpicks his inner Peck. ‘Do you want negroes by the carload,’ he asks, ‘in our schools and churches and theatres?’
In this version – created a few years before he became the mainstay of what Oprah Winfrey, on America’s behalf, calls ‘our national novel’ – Atticus is a more lifelike Southern lawyer of the period, a divided figure and a dark gothic construction out of Flannery O’Connor. We can now see him as he was before rewriting turned him holy, before the magic happened, and it’s a shock because the author’s later conception of his purity seems suddenly manufactured and false. Atticus is now less convincing as a good man than as a character in moral black-face. Scout is no longer Scout: no longer a sweet child flowering into percipience, but a liberal New Yorker returning to find the politics of her home town mired in hatred. It’s a different, under-developed, book to make the pretty prose of the better one seem hollow. Literary enchantment is a fragile bird, and Harper Lee’s account of human fairness will not easily endure the information that she once wrote: ‘I don’t care what it is, Uncle Jack, if you’ll only tell me what’s turned my father into a nigger-hater.’
Imagine waking up to learn that Hamlet killed his own father, that Pip had been scheming for money all along. Imagine discovering that Sherlock Holmes, in a previous version, was a bit of a thicko, a bit humourless, or that Molly Bloom had no interest in sex. We’re quite used to that sort of thing in the movies, where an adaptation might not only lose characters, but lose a character’s central meaning. In the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a straight writer played by George Peppard is on a mission to gain Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). In the original novella, a gay writer enjoys a friendship with a kooky girl while knowing she is likely soon to vanish. But a bad adaptation won’t tarnish a book and won’t in any case be blamed on the author. Published nearly a decade before Harper Lee with some trepidation sent Go Set a Watchman to her editor, Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, tells the story of a boy’s return home in search of his father. It turns out Lee and Capote had more or less written the same first book, and, haunted by their childhoods and hoping fame and fortune would set them free, each had put the other into their story.