Raise your hand if you read To Kill a Mockingbird in school.
That’s where many of us first encountered Harper Lee’s iconic novel about a child’s growing awareness of racial injustice in the American South. I read the book when I was a kid for school, and then re-read it two decades later to find that: “Jem is just as brave as I remember, and Scout is as funny and headstrong. Their father is a thoughtful and fair-minded man whose parenting style reflects his legal experience.”
That last line sounds funny now, doesn’t it? With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, we now know that Atticus Finch was an unapologetic bigot. That is, if we believe that Watchman is a sequel to Mockingbird, as Lee’s lawyer claimed it was, rather than the early draft it probably is. As Max from Litigation and Trial said in Despite Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch Is Still a Hero:
[M]any classic novels started out with truly bizarre first drafts. In the earliest drafts of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, several children were sucked into the factory and incorporated into the chocolate bars. The same is true of classic movies: Rocky originally ended with him deliberately throwing the fight. As novelists often say, “the essence of writing is rewriting.” In short, the Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is not the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird.
Trying to pass off Watchman as a sequel—possibly even the final installment of a previously unheard of plan for a Mockingbird trilogy—is just one of the many ways the people purporting to represent Lee’s interests have tried to destroy her legacy.
Other efforts include:
- Lee’s strange quest to trademark the words “To Kill a Mockingbird,” thereby squelching references to her work; and
- Lee’s lawsuit against her hometown museum, a non-profit entity that spread interest in her work.
Now, Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, further guts the author’s legacy by putting an end to the mass paperback edition of Mockingbird. This is a move that will likely result in higher royalties for Lee’s heirs at the expense of spreading her work to future fans. As the New Republic explains:
[T]he disappearance of the mass-market edition could have a significant impact on schools. The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is both so accessible to young readers and so widely taught in America is crucial to its cultural importance… Without a mass-market option, schools will likely be forced to pay higher prices for bulk orders of the trade paperback edition—and given the perilous state of many school budgets, that could very easily lead to it being assigned in fewer schools.”
So, my children might not read it in school like I did, but maybe its disappearance from the curriculum is not such a bad thing. Is it time to move on?
This question reminds me of a discussion I had with MonkeyMoonMachine (also known as Matt Hagemann) in the comments to Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: Evidence That American Culture Is In Decline.* After noting that classic books might not resonate with newer readers the way they did with their original audiences, he said:
I am disappointed in general in how little the new Common Core K-12 standards emphasize teaching any literature of the last 40 years. Perhaps the standards-makers are afraid of declaring any new works as “classics.” But then again, the standards also ignore most of the lit-crit thinking of the last 40 years, too: there’s no Deconstruction, feminist theory, reader-response, etc.
To Kill a Mockingbird is more than half a century old, and perhaps it’s time to declare a new work a “classic.” I would be particularly interested in something that stirs a sense of social justice in children, as To Kill a Mockingbird does, while being something that To Kill a Mockingbird is not: a book by a person of color about a person of color.
Do you have any recommendations?
*Speaking of Kurt Vonnegut, I’d like to mention that I often borrow a phrase from him to describe authors’ estates that do everything they can to “disappear up their own assholes, so to speak.” Vonnegut uttered those words in a different context, but I think the sentiment applies to the short-sighted actions of Harper Lee’s estate (as well as to William Faulkner’s and Arthur Conan Doyle’s). There are so many good books to read out there. We should steer clear of any book that a greedy estate is trying to make difficult to obtain.