When Harper Lee’s previously unknown book is published this summer, many readers will look to see what it says about an adult Scout Finch. One LSU professor is more interested in how it reflects on a coming-of-age civil rights movement.
Like every fan of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Michael Bibler, professor of Southern studies in LSU’s English Department, eagerly looks forward to “Go Set a Watchman.” Lee wrote it in the 1950s, and followed an editor’s advice to recast the protagonist as a young girl. Set in fictional Maycomb, Alabama, during the 1930s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” became one of the 20th century’s most honored and beloved novels, a story whose themes include racial injustice.
Might “Go Set a Watchman” approach those themes with a more adult perspective?
“They would have just passed Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court, so that would have been a big issue,” Bibler said. “The civil rights movement was accelerating, and Scout goes back into the middle of it. I don’t know if it will address any of that stuff. … If it’s set where Scout is an adult and they’re going back, I’m wondering how that being written in the mid-’50s it might comment on what was happening in the ’50s or engage that more directly.”
Lee, of Monroeville, Alabama, was one of several white Southern authors who sought to shed light on their region’s tortured racial attitudes in the 30 years following World War II. Elizabeth Spencer, Lillian Smith and Eudora Welty published books or magazine fiction exploring the theme, Bibler said, though none of those works received the acclaim of Lee’s novel.
Published in 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird” told about Scout, a young tomboy, observing a life in which there was plenty of unfairness — her mother’s death in Scout’s infancy, the Great Depression and, climactically, a black man being falsely convicted of raping a white woman. There is also the mystery of Boo Radley, a reclusive, mentally disturbed neighbor who became the source of much childhood speculation.
“She was able to get us to think about those issues about racial justice, about justice for everybody, for outsider figures like Boo Radley, for the kids, for (Scout’s poor schoolmate) Walter Cunningham, justice for all those people without it feeling too confrontational — very political, but in an emotional way very accessible to people,” he said. “So, it’s a really, really important book, because in Southern literature it changed how people could talk about the civil rights movement in literature. A lot of people make arguments that it helped the civil rights movement because it reached so many white readers when they were a bit more sympathetic to things.
“It’s a rare opportunity to get an undiscovered book from such a well-known writer.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a movie. Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor as Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defended Tom Robinson.
Yet, having been catapulted to fame, Lee returned to Monroeville and has avoided giving interviews about her book or why she never wrote another.
Her solitary nature has led to speculation about whether Lee actually authorized the publication of “Go Set a Watchman.”
Lee, 88, suffered a stroke in 2007 and lives in an assisted-living facility. Her attorney, Tonja Carter, said Lee changed her mind after Carter discovered a copy of “Watchman” last summer.
Like many admirers, Bibler hopes Lee approves of the publication.
“I think there’s a real worry she is being exploited here, but at the same time, if it were there waiting and she passed away, then her estate would publish the book,” he said. “So, I’m real sensitive to the fact that she might be exploited, but at the same time, I feel like it was going to come out anyway.”