Can Harper Lee Rest In Peace?

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drawing courtesy of Lucy Raymond, age six

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“Remember, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Atticus Finch – To Kill a Mockingbird

In memory of Harper Lee   1926 – 2016

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To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic, a novel of profound significance to millions of people all over the world. Just beneath the surface of the dappled watercolor and heady magnolia scented streets, the gentile Southern hospitality and firefly nights, lies hatred, violence, cruelty, and hypocrisy. Through the painstaking writing and rewriting that produces a work of genius, Harper Lee created characters that reflect both how glorious and depraved humanity can be. She gave us Atticus Finch, the gentle and dignified hero who acts courageously on his deep beliefs of justice, shining a piercing light of truth through the dark labyrinth that was the moral norm of 1930’s Alabama.

Go Set a Watchman, the first draft of what later became To Kill a Mockingbird, reincarnates Atticus into a despicable bigot, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Painful words to read coming from any character’s lips, but from the man who has become a symbol of the redeeming power of compassion in the human heart, it is wrenching.

Atticus Finch, who, in Mockingbird, inspired millions to recognize the sacred nature of honor was originally drafted as a self righteous, hate filled racist. It was only because the author was encouraged by her brilliant editor, Tay Hohoff, to rethink the novel, take a different slant and go back twenty years in time, that Atticus, who had originally represented all that was evil in the repugnant segregation of southern culture, was elevated into the man who reminds us that our souls are noble, a legendary character that belongs to the elite legion of heroes of modern mythology.

 If this novel truly was a sequel, if Harper Lee had spent years perfecting it into a well written novel, if she had a compelling message to tell, a reason to take Atticus off of his pedestal, a believable evolution, and if she was of sound mind when making the decision to publish, then that is to be respected. But, from the start, the release and grandiose promotion of this first draft, the continual reference to it as a “Sequel” or “New Novel by Harper Lee”, has been suspect.

 Joe Nocera, journalist for the NY Times, in an article entitled Harper Lee The ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud (7/24/15) stated that “Go Set a Watchman constitutes one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.” Harper Lee was almost 90 years old, a stroke victim, wheel chair bound, living in a nursing home, hard of hearing, nearly blind, and with extremely limited short term memory, when her first draft was “discovered” by her new lawyer, Tonja B. Carter, not long after the death of the previous gate keeper of Harper’s estate, her sister Alice Lee, also an attorney. The senior vice president at Harper Collins said that the publishing company had never spoken to Ms. Lee about the second manuscript and that all negotiations were made through her agent and recently hired lawyer.

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One winter after having worked arduously for over two years on rewrites of what would become Mockingbird,  Harper Lee became so frustrated and enraged with her inability to get what she wanted on paper that she threw the manuscript out of her apartment window into the snow. It was only because she called her friend and editor Tay in tears, who insisted Harper rescue the damp pages immediately, that the tedious work of all those months and meetings was saved. Does this seem like the action of someone who would want the public to read an early, rejected, draft of her work?

Harper Lee had many vital years in which both her publishers and the public begged her for more material. All the while her first draft was in her files, yet she declined to publish it.  She polished To Kill a Mockingbird until we could see ourselves in its’ mirror. This is what she set out to do and this is what she won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, The National Medal of Arts, and the Pulitzer Prize for. What better legacy could an author wish for?

 Trying to cash in on Harper Lee’s fame (Go Set a Watchman sold over one million copies the first week it was available to the public) by publishing a discarded early draft after the author became infirm, lost her sister’s protection, and was less likely to resist, is shameful in and of itself, but when it ruthlessly destroys the memory of a character that has imbued hope in generations of hearts, it is a betrayal of the very integrity that the novel stand for and is, indeed, a sin.

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“To Kill a Mockingbird represents a sense of emerging humanism and decency”

Andrew Young, former United Nations ambassador, veteran of the civil rights movement, and colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into 40 languages, has sold over 30 million copies, and has been a vital part of middle and high school English classes the world over for over fifty years.

 

 

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