"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Literature in the News: Harper Lee Dies and Her Reputation

The author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, died yesterday.  From Associated Press through Yahoo News: 

Harper Lee, the elusive novelist whose child's-eye view of racial injustice in a small Southern town, "To Kill a Mockingbird," became standard reading for millions of young people and an Oscar-winning film, has died. She was 89.

Lee died peacefully Friday, publisher HarperCollins said in a statement. It did not give any other details about how she died.

"The world knows Harper Lee was a brilliant writer but what many don't know is that she was an extraordinary woman of great joyfulness, humility and kindness. She lived her life the way she wanted to — in private — surrounded by books and the people who loved her," Michael Morrison, head of HarperCollins U.S. general books group, said in the statement.

As I’ve mentioned in the past I had never read To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most notable works of American fiction in the second half of the 20th century.  It was the first book planned to be read in 2016, and I did start it.  I had to stop it to start my Lenten read, St. Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, which I just finished a few days ago.  I’m about a quarter of the way through To Kill a Mockingbird and I was about to pick it up when I saw the news of Lee’s passing.  From the Associated Press article:

"To Kill a Mockingbird," published in 1960, is the story of a girl nicknamed Scout growing up in a Depression-era Southern town. A black man has been wrongly accused of raping a white woman, and Scout's father, the resolute lawyer Atticus Finch, defends him despite threats and the scorn of many.

The book quickly became a best-seller, won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a memorable movie in 1962, with Gregory Peck winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Atticus. As the civil rights movement grew, the novel inspired a generation of young lawyers, was assigned in high schools all over the country and was a popular choice for citywide, or nationwide, reading programs.

By 2015, its sales were reported by HarperCollins to be more than 40 million worldwide, making it one of the most widely read American novels of the 20th century. When the Library of Congress did a survey in 1991 on books that have affected people's lives, "To Kill a Mockingbird" was second only to the Bible.

It was just last year, almost to the day, I posted that after 54 years Harper Lee published a second novel after To Kill a Mockingbird.   The novel, Go Set a Watchman, was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and contained the same characters only set 20 years later.  So the To Kill a Mockingbird is actually a prequel to Go Set a Watchman

But the prequel was a learning experience for Lee, and apparently is not of the same caliber. I won’t go into that since I haven’t read either.  I do feel the need to comment, however, on all the criticism out there for the people who pushed Lee to publish what critics claim is an unworthy effort.  They do absolve Lee of the critique since she was in her late eighties.  Here’s such criticism from Ron Charles, the fiction editor at the Washington Post:

The sadness of Harper Lee’s death on Friday in Monroeville, Ala., 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.

And Charles goes on to utter his disappointment with the recently published work:

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?

So Charles seems to bring up at least four issues there: (1) Should a work that contradicted the vision of the more renown work have been published? (2) Who should be responsible for an author’s personal papers and writings?  (3) Should a landmark work be protected from garish rehab? (4) Is an author’s reputation sullied by the publication of mediocre, if not poor, quality works?

Let’s take the easiest one to answer first, number 2.  Who should be responsible?  The person the author assigns to be responsible or if no one is assigned, the natural sequence of heirship.  It’s a legal matter.  If the author assigns poorly or it falls to an unscrupulous person, well, that’s life. 

Next, number 3, protection from rehab.  First, there are copyright laws which apply, and for the most part make sense.  Once the time has passed, then if people want to read some crazy prefabrications of a classic work, I don’t see the harm.  There are all sorts of crazy rewrites of Jane Austen novels with vampires or zombies complicating the action.  See here if you want to laughBut this charge itself against Go Tell a Watchman doesn’t make sense.  It was Lee herself who wrote the work.  It’s not a rehab but a prequel. 

As to number 1, Ron Charles answers it himself when he says above that “we should grow up.”  Yes, complaining that a character in one work contradicts the nature of that same character in a different work is is childish, even if both works are by the same author, perhaps especially so.  The works are separate and distinct.  If the author wants to hold to the same vision in both, then she has the prerogative; if she wants to have a different vision, then it’s still her prerogative.  Take the Renaissance painter Raphael for example.  He painted many versions of the Madonna, each with a different personality.  The character is the same, but the vision is different.

As to the harm the people who were responsible for her papers did by publishing Go Set a Watchman, I think it’s a complete non-issue.    I don’t see her reputation sullied.  Even if Watchman turns out to be a disaster – and a lot of people say it’s a disappointment – it will not hurt her reputation in the long run. Over the course of history, only a writer’s best work is part of their historical critical evaluation. No one remembers the few lousy Shakespeare plays. They just don’t count in the long run. If Harper Lee made some money with Watchman and handed it over to her heirs, so be it. It’s only a transient thing.

This is a nice TV news summary of her passing and the issue with the new novel.

By all accounts she was a sweet and good soul.  May she rest in peace.

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