The shame of Harper Lee’s muddled legacy

The sadness of Harper Lee’s death on Friday in Monroeville, Alabama, is deepened by the painful controversies that attended the last few years of her life. Long adored as the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee found herself caught in a morass of claims and counterclaims about her competency to manage her own literary legacy.

The sadness of Harper Lee’s death on Friday in Monroeville, Alabama, is deepened by the painful controversies that attended the last few years of her life. Long adored as the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee found herself caught in a morass of claims and counterclaims about her competency to manage her own literary legacy.

To Kill a Mockingbird is still devoured by countless new and repeat readers around the world. Teenagers study the Depression-era story of Scout and Jem every year. Lawyers routinely say that Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, inspired them to study law. But ironically, lawyers and legal ambiguities eventually threatened to overshadow Lee’s life and work. What a shame.

There was, for decades, something ineffably pure about Lee’s singular American classic, published in 1960. The author’s reluctance to give interviews, her resistance to all the self-promotional schemes of modern publishing, and especially her refusal to write another novel contributed to the mythos of To Kill a Mockingbird. Unfettered by any distractions except Horton Foote’s glorious movie version, the story of Scout’s moral awakening and her father’s brave fight against bigotry remained preserved in the Mason jar of our collective consciousness.

But then came that remarkable news early last year that Lee would publish another novel. Go Set a Watchman was to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was apparently written before that Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. It was a separate book or it was an early draft — or it was a publishing sham foisted on a public eager for anything from its most beloved living author.

Our elation curdled into confusion, then suspicion. For one thing, the timing was suspect: Lee’s sister and longtime adviser, Alice, had recently died. And the money was huge: To Kill a Mockingbird was still bringing in $3 million a year. And finally, Lee, blind and deaf and suffering the effects of a stroke, was living in a nursing home. Reporters were forced to rely on the cheery assurances of her active involvement from her publisher and her new lawyer.

This was no way to treat an author. This was no way to conduct literary research. This was a tawdry Southern gothic playing out in the news between competing news releases and accusations of exploitation.

When Go Set a Watchman finally appeared in print last summer, it quickly shattered sales records. But it also shattered something more precious: our admiration for Atticus Finch. In this old/new story, set two decades after the trial of Tom Robinson, Atticus has devolved into a racist. Jean Louise (“Scout”) is shocked and disillusioned. And so are we.

Maybe we should just grow up; after all, as close readers noticed, Atticus was never really as noble and uncomplicated as we imagined. But that’s not the point. It wasn’t Atticus’s reputation that was sullied by this second book, it was Lee’s.

“Go, set a watchman,” the prophet Isaiah writes. “Let him declare what he seeth.” And what we saw — the millions of us who bought this new book —was an inferior piece of work, an early draft of something we love, fascinating perhaps for its embryonic detail, but not a finished novel to place alongside To Kill a Mockingbird.

The tragic story of Harper Lee — and it is a tragedy — raises the question of who owns our literary heritage. Not in a legal sense, perhaps, but in a larger, cultural sense. Are there works of literature so beloved, so foundational to who we are, that they deserve to be classified as National Historic Landmarks, forever protected from garish rehab or wholesale demolition?

Yes, the record here is mixed. It’s hard to imagine an obsessive stylist like the late David Foster Wallace letting someone else touch his last novel, but in 2011, when his friend Michael Pietsch edited and published The Pale King, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

On the other hand, how many times must we suffer such abominations as Seussical?

Authors, their heirs, their guardians and their agents can do what they will with notes and drafts and hard drives, but there’s a reason some writers place their papers with reputable libraries instead of with savvy lawyers. Scholars, working in public, are equipped to preserve and evaluate an artist’s work. If Lee’s manuscript for Go Set a Watchman had been published in a scholarly edition along with the rest of her papers, it would have expanded our sense of Lee as an artist, instead of muddying our sense of To Kill a Mockingbird as a novel. But, of course, it would have sold far, far fewer copies.

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