Lori Anderson: To kill a legend or teach a lesson?

Author Harper Lee. Picture: AP
Author Harper Lee. Picture: AP
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THE LONG wait for publication of Harper Lee’s follow up to Mockingbird ends in three days time, writes Lori Anderson

‘Gentlemen of the jury, oh and ladies too, please do excuse my manners, a lot has clearly changed since 1935, I shall be brief, but I would like to use my remaining time with you to remind you that this case is not a difficult one. The prosecution would have you believe that my client, Ms Nelle ‘Harper’ Lee, is the unwitting and unfortunate victim of ‘elder abuse’, that her rights as an individual, as an author, as a person who has steadfastly defended herself from the false flattery of publicity for over half a century, is now being cruelly exploited and thrust back into the public spotlight for the edification and financial gain of others. It is a case supported by several creaking planks on which, with your indulgence, I hope to apply enough pressure to cause them to splinter and collapse.

“The prosecution has linked several factual events and come to a conclusion that is pure fiction. What we know about Harper Lee, or what we think we know about Harper Lee, is that in recent years she has resided in an assisted living facility called The Meadows’in Monroeville, the small town in Alabama that she made famous around the world under the name of Maycomb, the setting for her novel, To Kill A Mocking Bird. You may have heard of it and I understand that I make a, well, far from fleeting appearance. But let us return to the matter at hand. A stroke in 2011 claimed to have left her disabled, with problems with her short-term memory and even more dependent on her elder sister, Miss Alice, who for decades has been her protector.

“Why, didn’t Miss Alice herself write in a letter to a journalist: ‘Poor Nelle Harper can’t see, and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in which she has confidence’.”

Last November the sad, though hardly unexpected death of Miss Alice – she was, after all 103 years old – was followed within six months by two extraordinary events. Shortly afterwards Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s lawyer, discovered that the deposit box that contained the original manuscript of Mocking Bird, also contained the manuscript of an earlier book, Go Set A Watchman, which she had written first in the 1950s and then set aside.

The second extraordinary event was that in February it was announced that Harper Lee had agreed to the novel’s publication on Tuesday and, well, here we are with only three days to go...”

I’d like to think that if anyone could make a robust defence of the strange, exciting but also slightly worrying publication of Harper Lee’s new novel it would be Atticus Finch, the most famous and famously moral lawyer in literary history. Yet he’s also the one I’m most worried about. Initially it was Harper Lee about whom I was most concerned as it did seem so strange that after more than half a century she would suddenly decide to allow the publication of a second novel.

At the age of 89 I imagined that without the protective presence of her big sister that she might now be being subtly bullied by her new lawyer, however this week there were enough quotes from close friends testifying both to her mental competence and her agreement with the decision to publish Go Set A Watchman that I thought it can’t all be a foul conspiracy, maybe, just maybe at almost 90 years old she’s finally thought ‘what the hell.’

Wayne Flynt, a close friend and an emeritus professor of history said her nephew asked her five times: “Are you sure you want this published?” To which she replied: “Of course.” Flynt believes she wants to lay to rest the rumours that Mockingbird was written by Truman Capote, her childhood friend, who was a drunken soak towards the end of his life and once maliciously claimed to be the real author of Lee’s novel.

Last week her agent Andrew Nurnberg attended a private publication party at which Lee signed copies of Go Set A Watchman and said that she had previously told him: “If you think people will enjoy it, let’s publish it.”

I wonder if people will enjoy it? For over the past 50 years the pedestal on which Atticus Finch stands has been elevated to an almost celestial height. The lawyer whose character was based on Lee’s own father is a secular saint who defends, in the face of almost universal hostility, an innocent black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, who in reality made a flirtatious pass at him. While Mockingbird was set in the 1930s, Watchman is set among the racial tensions of Alabama in the 1950s and I’m sure Finch will be revealed, as all human are, to possess feet of clay.

I’m fearful that reading Go Set A Watchman may forever tarnish a figure viewed by three generations of schoolchildren as a second father and could be akin to them finding diary entries about his many mistresses. Yet if that is the case then maybe it will also be an important lesson in life. If To Kill A Mocking Bird taught us that justice can be crooked even when good men are straight, maybe Watchman will reveal that all men and women, even Atticus Finch, are flawed. Yesterday morning I rose early to read the first chapter, which was released online and enjoyed reading about Scout’s return by rail to Maycomb and all I can say is I’ll be counting down the next four days and looking forward to see what verdict the court of public opinion will return.