OFF THE CUFF: August 21, 2015

Harper Lee’s new (well, old, but new) novel caused quite a stir. Some think the whole thing is the height of commercialism. For sure there was a lot of pre-publication hype going on. It’s also been a cause for confusion.

Published August 20, 2015 7:26 PM
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off-the-cuff THHarper Lee’s new (well, old, but new) novel caused quite a stir. Some think the whole thing is the height of commercialism. For sure there was a lot of pre-publication hype going on. It’s also been a cause for confusion.

By Allen Clark

off-the-cuff LARGEHarper Lee’s new (well, old, but new) novel caused quite a stir. Some think the whole thing is the height of commercialism. For sure there was a lot of pre-publication hype going on. It’s also been a cause for confusion.

The 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” is arguably one of America’s favorite novels. It has sold more than 30 million copies in 40 languages worldwide and won the Pulitzer Prize. The 1962 movie won three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gregory Peck. Lawyer Atticus Finch is one of the most influential, moral, and idealistic figures in literature.

So, what are we to think when Lee’s original draft, now called “Go Set a Watchman,” is published 55 years later, and Atticus in his later years is a segregationist, mouthing bigoted sentiments like “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

One of the concerns has been whether Harper Collins somehow “forced” the aging Ms. Lee to publish this version. We may never know for sure; however, she did seem to have reservations. The key issue to me is, whoever said first drafts were worthy of publication – back when they were written, or a half-century later? There are very few works of art that emerge Venus-like from inspiration without a good portion of sweat.

Back in 1957, when she submitted this draft to J.B. Lippincott, she felt it was her best shot. Had her publishers recognized it as good enough to publish, they would have. But they didn’t. As Wall Street Journal critic Sam Sacks commented,  “Go Set a Watchman” was a practice run for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Based on all the reviews, it would seem most critics think it should have stayed that way.

Perhaps the biggest concern about “Watchman” is the precipitous fall of Atticus Finch. Maybe the reading (and I would have to add movie-going) public acquires rights of ownership in cases like this. With the matter still a major cocktail-party conversation topic, I’m waiting to see what new safe-deposit-box discoveries publishers will turn up next.

Will Swiss nursemaid Maria be recast as a beer-guzzling, mean-hearted keeper of the von Trapp children? Will Heidi now be a sloppy, sullen spendthrift who steals goats and money from her friend’s blind grandmother?

Will Ahab turn out to be a member of Green Peace? Will Tiny Tim end up a selfish, hedonistic hedge fund manager? Will Raskolnikov actually become a founder of the Salvation Army?

Jane Austen had an earlier draft of “Pride and Prejudice.” What if Lizzy Bennet really was a woman of the night, rejecting her hopeless mother, distant father, and miserable rest of the Bennet clan?

Most distressing, does Lassie  not come home? What do we think when she forms a wild-dog pack that ravages the hillside farms of Yorkshire? (By the way, rumor has it Lady Gaga will star in the movie version as Priscilla.)

I can’t wait.

 

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