We all love a good mystery. So what are we to make of claims and counterclaims currently playing out in the media about a possible “third book” in Harper Lee’s body of work, a companion piece to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and the newly-released Go Set A Watchman (2015)? Is a third book possible?
Well, yes, it is.
In 1966, the Hanover County School Board in Richmond, Virginia declared To Kill a Mockingbird “immoral literature” and sought to have it banned from all school library shelves in their county. Still riding high on the success of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, but becoming jaded with and tired of the demands of public life, Lee nevertheless provided a response to the heated discussion being played out in the local newspaper in that county, beginning by explaining the reports she’d heard from Richmond had made her wonder if any of “[the board] members can read”.
I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enrol the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.
Lee’s rapier wit and somewhat dark humour is not unlike that of the young Scout Finch’s innate rebelliousness and deep sense of justice, which many readers have already have seen playing out again in Go Set A Watchman, through Jean-Louise’s (the now grown-up Scout) conflicted relationship with her father, Atticus Finch.
This relationship, and particularly the rendering of Atticus Finch as a rather more complex man with segregationist overtones, has created in would-be readers and fans somewhat of an ethical dilemma – read the book, and risk tarnishing the image of one of the most beloved characters in American letters.
Lee’s father AC Lee was also a lawyer, and it is to him both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman are dedicated, along with Lee’s sister Alice, a lawyer with the distinction of having been the oldest practising lawyer in Alabama, only retiring a year or so before her death at 103 in November 2014.
While a respect for the law and a keen sense of justice ran in the family, it was Harper Lee who backed away from practising, leaving university just shy of a law degree to move to New York City to focus on writing. There are obvious commonalities between the portrayal of Jean-Louise in Go Set A Watchman and what we think we know of the life of Harper Lee, and it is through these close readings that we are given our only real glimpse at the writer herself.
Choosing a life away from home and the family trade seems characteristic of the strong-willed woman who wrote that blistering retort to the school board, and is evident in the index of Charles J Shields' unauthorised biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (2006).
Under “Lee, Nelle Harper”, we find entries for: “Athleticism” (p. 77, 78), “Drinking of” (22, 99, 129, 185, 270), “Foul mouth of” (76, 78), “Humor” (89, 97, 112) and, tellingly, “Nonconformism of” (33, 35, 39, 55, 61, 76-77, 84, and 237).
Lee’s carefully guarded private life is one of the few things over which she has retained a sense of ownership. One only has to witness the almost distressed and soul-searching reactions to the re-imagining of Atticus Finch being played out across social media and in news columns to understand that To Kill A Mockingbird is a book that in many ways belongs to us now, not Lee.
Charles J Shields' biography contains many references to the previous versions of To Kill A Mockingbird, and they are revealing, especially in light of claims there may be one more version of this much-loved and revered text.
We learn much about the labour Lee performed under the watchful eye of editor Tay Hohoff. The descriptions in Shields' book of the “drafts, titles and revisions” refer not only to the extensive editing and revision the manuscripts were subject to, but also the progressive titles, with Go Set A Watchman being first offered to editors in 1957.
Go Set A Watchman is recorded on index cards from the publisher’s office as being received, and Lippincott’s (the publisher) staff track the manuscript’s development over time.
There followed a series of suggestions to an uncommonly compliant Lee, and this resulted in the shift in perspective to what we now know is Jean-Louise as a 26-year-old in Go Set A Watchman, to Atticus in the next full manuscript submitted. Chapter 5 of Shields' unauthorised biography describes the next iteration of the novel in the chapter title: Atticus becomes To Kill a Mockingbird.
Atticus, then, would be the mysterious “third” book (chronologically, it would be the middle book of three). Hohoff’s name should figure largely in the eventual discussion of the changes made to the manuscripts, especially given the furore over the depiction of Atticus in Go Set A Watchman, and claims from Hohoff’s granddaughter that the editor would not have approved of the publication of Go Set A Watchman.
The new Atticus Finch
It seems evident that Hohoff’s steady hand guided Lee to a more flattering and progressive portrayal of Atticus Finch, one that may sit somewhere in the more moderate middle, if the manuscript of Atticus ever comes to light.
This is, by all accounts, the man AC Lee became later in life, and one Harper Lee enjoyed a good relationship with, developing a deep admiration for her father, as evidence by the dedications of both her best-selling books to him.
Perhaps in this third version of the man – in Atticus – readers would find, as Jean-Louise does (and as Harper Lee seemed to), a sense of balance and an acceptance of their differences. In the last pages of Go Set A Watchman we see this, with Jean-Louise helping the increasingly frail Atticus Finch into a car, expressing her love to him in words and yet thinking of him as “her old enemy” (p. 178).
There’s a quiet, devastating reference to her brother there too but then the dark Lee humour rears up and bites the reader, lest the scene lull us into a false sense of sentimentality.
Where Lee may have once responded with fiery retorts to a perceived slight against her work, the once rebellious nonconformist has been able to settle into something resembling acceptance – of her fame, of her status as a writer, of her life away from the limelight, which has regardless led to further scrutiny.
Questions still remain about the discovery and publication of Go Set A Watchman, including Lee’s participation and the role of her lawyer. It’s all part of what long time friends have described as the “delicious mystery” of Miss Lee.
Lee may still have one more ace up her sleeve, but Go Set A Watchman has already achieved some of what To Kill A Mockingbird did, both polarising and uniting readers – and leaving us ultimately wanting for more.