Thursday, February 5, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird: The Sequel


    I read all seven volumes of the Harry Potter series, out loud, to my boys, several times, because we'd revisit the series every time a new one came out.
    Yet when J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy showed up, I got a few pages into it, shrugged, and moved on. Ordinary.
      I've read John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces many times—funniest book ever written. The Neon Bible, his first stab as an author, at age 16? Released as a salve to those who couldn't bear the thought there were to be no more books from him? Pass.
      So obviously no joy here at news that Harper Lee, supposedly well into her decline at 88, suddenly had a change of heart, and after refusing to follow up her perfect American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird for more than half a century, will be offering the world its sequel in July, something called Go Set a Watchman. 
     Glancing around on-line, that seems to be the common, if not the universal reaction. Everybody smells a rat.
     Yes, books should not be reviewed until they're read.
     But that unfortunate title should be a tip-off.
     That, and the fact Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird. Perhaps Lee was still learning her craft. Perhaps the book was set aside for a reason. Perhaps Lee had it right the past 55 years. 
     Usually this sort of thing happens after a famous person dies. Then their heirs, smelling money in the water, sells off every outtake, every half-formed fetal novel. All those crappy Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix albums that came out after their deaths. 
     Publishing is a business, and HarperCollins obviously feels there's money to be made: they're reportedly ordering up two millions copies of Watchman. And there is a one-in-a-million chance it could be a fraction as good as the original, the tale of young Scout Finch, her father, attorney Atticus, and the rape case that gripped their small town. 
     But don't bet on it. In fact, expect a little disappointment, at best, laughable disappointment at worst.
      Part of Lee's legacy was that, having written a superlative masterpiece, she knew when to take her cards off the table and quit. Margaret Mitchell never wrote Return to Tara. Like J.D. Salinger's long silence, it might have been frustrating for the reading public, but there was a nobility to it as well. Why produce something second rate when you've achieved greatness? Why twirl endlessly in the public eye? Harper Lee putting out a book now is like Thomas Pynchon doing another guest spot on "The SImpsons." It toys with a precious legacy, those rarest of artists who learned how to walk away from it all. That too is a gift. 
    All we can do is remind ourselves that subsequent publications do not diminish the initial achievement. They can't, or anyway, shouldn't. Walt Whitman revised Leaves of Grass throughout his life, making it worse every time.  We still have the original 1855 version, and the later ones are curiosities for scholars. Harper Lee's sister, Alice, who always protected the shy author, died last spring, and obviously the vultures have set upon poor Harper. We should not judge her harshly, or at all. To Kill a Mockingbird will remain unblemished, the way that The Sun Also Rises was not spoiled by that cobbled together Hemingway novel that bobbed to the surface in 1970, nearly a decade after his death, the one none of us read and nobody can recall the name of offhand. 
     Can you?
     Me neither.
     Checking...
     Islands in the Stream. 
     Someday...glancing at the top... Go Set a Watchman (really?) will enjoy the same fate.   

     

24 comments:

  1. "...nobody can recall the name of offhand. Can you?" I could, and did, not that I ever read it. Why wasn't that a contest? : )

    Does it seem likely that a person wrote only two books in their life, one of which was a huge success, and then lost track of where the manuscript for the other one was, for it to be "discovered" at this late date? I realize that stranger things have happened, but the timing of this is certainly suspicious. And I agree about the likelihood of it being great. Much as I like Mockingbird, I won't be among those pre-ordering a copy of this.

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    1. I tried reading "Islands in the Stream" but couldn't get past the scene where one of the characters beats up a guy for practically no reason at all, and everyone else, including the author, treats him like he's some big hero. Ugh.

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  2. I don't agree at all. And those Joplin and Hendrix albums? Love them.

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  3. Read your article on the Mayor's race a few columns back. It's funny Rahm Emanuel closes 50+ schools in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods. But he sends his kids to the PRIVATE 30 thousand dollar a year University of Chicago Lab School. 3 children @ 30k per year=90k per year in tuition costs, AND THAT'S JUST K-12! Why aren't Chicago Public Schools good enough for this man's children? If he cares sooooooo much about the kids in Chicago why doesn't he put his money where his fat mouth is and enroll his children in Chicago Public Schools?!

    The truth is this guy could give a shit about inner city kids. Being mayor is just a badge and a stepping stone in his bid for higher office.

    Here's his temper tantrum when asked

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKf4HmiNNDI

    Disgusting hypocrisy!

    Doc for Mayor!

    What do you say Neil?

    Marcus

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    1. I have no idea what Neil will say, but here's what I say: Accusing a public official of "hypocrisy" for sending his or her children to private school is a tiresome, meaningless ad-hominem attack.

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    2. Sure hope Marcus didn't vote for President (or Senator, or State Senator) Obama.

      Now if CTU allowed him to enact whatever education reforms he wanted to if he sent his kids to public schools and he refused, then there might be an argument...

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  4. Let's get real here. "Reform" is not for the upper class. It's for the poor and the powerless. That's why people like Emanuel deem themselves fit to tell everyone else what they need to do. They know darn well that all that emphasis on tests makes for a shoddy and insufficient education. Guess what? They don't care. They don't really expect poor kids to get a quality education and don't really believe they deserve it. if they did, they would aim a whole lot higher.

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  5. Back to the column. Interesting speculation, but we really should wait and see. Authors are not always good judges of the worth, or at least public appeal, of their works. A famous example was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who felt his "private consulting detective" was taking up time better spent on more serious literary work and seemed to bring about his end in that business at the Reichenbach Falls. His public rebelled, and he succumbed to the logic that the money earned off Holmes could free him to devote time to the historical novels and polemics about the Boer war and other matters which now go unread except by historians and book collectors. The later stories include some duds, but "The Adventure of the Empty House," in which he surprises and confounds Doctor Watson by reappearing after three years of international travel and derails the plot of Colonel Sebastian Moran, the "second most dangerous man in London," to kill him, is a rattling good yarn. And it was followed by "The Hound of the Baskervilles," his most famous Holmes adventure.

    Tom Evans

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  6. It's a trite non-argument, like saying that my views of the mayoral election are invalid because I live in Northbrook. Everyone tries to get the best they can for their kids. Thousands of Chicagoans send their kids to private schools, religious schools, etc. If the mayor had surgery at Northwestern Hospital, you wouldn't demand he have it at Cook County. Emanuel's father was a doctor who did a lot of charity work, and once said, "I can care for the poor without being poor myself."

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  7. As a practical matter, Rahm could probably elbow his kids into one of the more competitive public schools, which would invite universal condemnation from his political enemies and the "watchdogs" in the press. Their presence there would in any event cause disruption and quite possibly danger to themselves and others.

    Tom Evans

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    1. Even worse. If his kids are as book smart as their relatives they might easily get into those school on their own and then still be accused of only being there based on influence. Better to not take a spot from a smart kid who csnt afford private school.

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  8. Jimmy Carter sent his kids to D.C. public schools. He had a stake in this system! Sorry all above comments defending Rahm are a smoke screen for a hugely relevant political hypocrisy. Do as I say and not as I do!

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    1. Did Jimmy Carter get D.C. schools universal preschool when they didn't even have universal kindergarden (like Rahm did with Chicago)? What exactly DID Jimmy Carter do for D.C. schools? Unless you can point to something, the example undermines your argument. Anyway, there's nothing inconsistent with working to improve schools while not being willing to send your own kids there currently - it's called not cutting off your nose to spite your face.

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  9. To the column, I'd add Ralph Ellison - "Invisible Man" is a stunningly great book, Juneteenth is unreadable. In his defense, he didn't release it, his literary executive did (and much of the book was reconstruction after a fire destroyed many of the drafts).

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  10. Again to the point that authors are not always the best judge, George Eliot (Marianne Evans), the most humane -- and least anti-Semitic-- of the great Victorians was notoriously diffident about her great works, needing constant reassurance and protection from criticism before she would allow publication. This was provided by her publisher John Blackwood but more particularly by her consort, George Henry Lewes, about whom Henry James wrote "...it was a great thing for her to have accident made rare and exposure mitigated, and to this result Lewes, as the administrator of her fame, admirably contributed. He filtered the stream, giving her only the clearer water." Having once worked in advertising, I thought it a good job description of an account executive.

    Tom Evans

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    1. Exactly, what does "least anti-Semitic" mean?

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  11. It's a Wise Child--you are correct in saying that "A Confederacy of Dunces" is the funniest book ever. Yeah, second acts from authors who are largely one-hit wonders are iffy. But did you really resist the temptation to read "Hapworth 16, 1924"?

    Sometimes we need to suffer the dross to enjoy the art...but one should probably not make it a frequent habit. For example, I have both Dover volumes of Haydn's piano sonatas, and have played through every darn one of them a few times. You get a very good idea of his style and formal approach, but you also start to long to get towards the end of volume 2 (they are arranged chronologically, and his best are the latest).

    Some artists can't help pouring out one great thing after another, like Beethoven. There is very little mediocre stuff there, even among the less well-known items like string trios and bagatelles for piano. But then you have others who have a hard time letting loose; perhaps it's some sort of approach-avoidance syndrome.

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  12. Neil, I’m a long-time reader of your column, which I think just gets better and better. Your point of view is one I value and take into serious consideration as I form my own opinions on so many topics. So I say this with love: What a dreary, unfair take on Lee’s new/old book—a book you have not yet laid eyes on!

    Yes, Harper Lee may only have published one book, but that hardly indicates she (or any writer of “one” book) hasn’t/hadn’t the talent to write many (or some or one) more. You cite Rowling’s seven (!) great reads. (Might be an aside, but I would argue Rowling is a master storyteller, but by no means a great writer.) Jane Austen wrote six wonderful books with similar themes. We may each have our favorite and least favorite among them, but would you argue that once she published "Sense and Sensibility" she should have stopped? Or what if she happened to publish "Emma" (my personal favorite) before the others, though they’d been written before "Emma"—should we have hoped they’d never seen the light of day?

    Many of us are intrigued by the possibility of "Go Set a Watchman" (you may be right about the title, but even that criticism deserves to be delayed until it is understood in context). What was the younger Harper Lee capable of? Assuming her writing improved (only an assumption), how so? Perhaps as her craft improved in Mockingbird, her youthful perspective slightly waned? I have no idea, of course. But I’m excited to find out, not to judge and dismiss (“expect a little disappointment, at best, laughable disappointment at worst”) before I have even turned the first page.

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    1. An Oxford don, asked if he read novels gave a very "donnish" reply. "Yes, I read all six every year,"

      Tom Evans

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  13. Unfair? The woman refuses to publish something for 55 years. Then in her decline, she's pushed to do something she could have done previous, had she wanted to. I hope that it's something fantastic. The odds of that are slim. Irwin Shaw's "The Girls in their Summer Dresses" was cut in half by some editor at the New Yorker. Say the other half exists. Tagging it back on might be a curiosity, and I suppose might conceivably make it better. But I highly doubt it. Perhaps you find that dreary and unfair. But no need to argue this. We'll have the book in July. Read it and check back.

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  14. I've seen this attitude from other people, but it surprises me coming from you. People in a creative occupation shouldn't be encouraged to censor their work or to fear diminishing their reputation. Your "legacy" is for others to worry about. The creative's job is to create. Others can criticize or praise the results. But to criticize before even seeing something is worst of all. Artists and critics should have open minds. Of course it won't change what she's already done. It already exists. To think all your work must equal your best is paralyzing. If it's a lesser work, so what? Quality of work varies. That's normal. To put out another book with prejudiced critics lying in wait to attack is pretty courageous, whatever the reason for doing it. But of course, we hope it's great.

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  15. I've seen this attitude from other people, but it surprises me coming from you. People in a creative occupation shouldn't be encouraged to censor their work or to fear diminishing their reputation. Your "legacy" is for others to worry about. The creative's job is to create. Others can criticize or praise the results. But to criticize before even seeing something is worst of all. Artists and critics should have open minds. Of course it won't change what she's already done. It already exists. To think all your work must equal your best is paralyzing. If it's a lesser work, so what? Quality of work varies. That's normal. To put out another book with prejudiced critics lying in wait to attack is pretty courageous, whatever the reason for doing it. But of course, we hope it's great.

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    1. That's silly. I wrote a novel when I was 25. It's crap. There isn't a chance it really isn't crap. If through some miracle I became a famous, best-selling author and then, in my dotage, some greedy publisher decided to bring it out, it would be crap with my name on it. And I'm not supposed to be against that? I didn't criticize Lee's book. I said it probably isn't any good. No crime there. Lots of books aren't very good. She isn't putting out the book because she's courageous, it's being put out because she's senile and doesn't have the strength to stop it. That isn't a fine distinction.

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  16. A man after our own hearts see below- noticed you were late with the blog this morn-that's okay, rest up

    Come after me’: Pennsylvania pol goes off on ‘gibbon’ Trump in profanity-laced Facebook post

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Thanks for commenting. As soon as I vet your remarks, they'll be posted, assuming they aren't, you know, mean and crazy.