"It's the one everyone's talking about," the clerk tells me as she hands over my first-day copy of Go Set a Watchman.
And I'm thinking, good for her and her needy industry. Good for literature as well, I suppose, though the quality of this sequel ( or is it prequel) to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is very much at issue, as is the motivation behind its publication after half a century of dormancy.
"It is suspicious that Harper Lee never elected to publish this earlier in her lifetime," says Rai Peterson, an associate professor at Ball State University who plans to teach both books this fall. "One would like to grant her the lady's prerogative to change her mind, but given that she is not in a condition to speak to the press directly, and given other legal shenanigans between the trust, the museum in Monroeville, the local production of the story, etc., it does seem like someone is out to make money for herself -- and Harper Lee? and the University of Alabama? -- in releasing this now."
That said, Peterson asks, what's a desirable alternative? Lock up the manuscript? Burn it? "Clearly readers wanted this."
So does the University of Alabama, where Harper Lee matriculated and where Michael Martone, a Fort Wayne native, Indiana University graduate and much-published author himself, is a professor of English. The university hopes for a generous bequest when the 89-year-old icon passes away, and therefore nobody in the development office is panning Go Set a Watchman.
Martone himself considers Lee, in essence, a one-book author; and compares her to the late African-American Ralph Ellison, whose classic novel Invisible Man had a posthumous "sequel" cobbled together by an editor friend.
After confronting the issue they chose, "They couldn't go anywhere else," he says of the two. "To get into race in this country will drive you crazy. I sympathize not with their characters but with the authors."
Sympathy and empathy with characters, Atticus Finch in particular, have charged the public response to Lee's new book, with many readers expressing something like betrayal that the saintly father of Mockingbird turns out to be a foe of the civil rights movement and a genteel white supremacist in the setting two decades later.
Two problems with this: First, middle-aged Atticus and elderly Atticus each was a man of his time and not an advocate for fundamental societal change; second, why does a literary figure have to be lovable to be engaging?
"His character is not as much contradicted as it is fleshed out," Peterson observes. "In Watchman, Jean Louise (the grown-up Scout of Mockingbird )learns to see her father as a human being with flaws and personal prejudices. The reader does, too."
In Mockingbird, Martone adds, "Atticus and the sheriff and the judge are incredibly fair when it comes to trying to stop the killing of an innocent man. But not one of them is against the system they're in. The cringe moment for me from the movie version was when Atticus is walking out and the blacks in the balcony all stand. That's paternalism. He wasn't going to share power with (his ill-fated client) Tom Robinson."
Mockingbird, in other words, owes much of its immense popularity to selective liberal perception. Like our choice of the pep-talking Martin Luther King Jr. of "I Have a Dream" over the scolding MLK of Birmingham Jail.
And why do readers feel a need to embrace, not just appreciate, a character? Why must they name their children Atticus? Martone attributes the tendency to "the Oprah-fication of books," whereby novels and memoirs are written and recommended not as works of art so much as pathways into surrogate lives.
At its author's alma mater, Mockingbird is studied more as a cultural artifact than a work of literary art, Martone says. The generations who cherish it for its clear-cut, melodramatic portrayal of good triumphing over ugliness would find the South of Faulkner, O'Connor and McCullers much harder on the digestion. The new book, rather too cutesy in its romantic thread and preachy in its politics, at least in this reader's opinion, won't make the aesthetic major leagues either.
But they retain importance all the same. If this literary/marketing event can spark intelligent conversation among millions of Americans about civil rights, that's worth any number of Pulitzers. Rae Peterson, for one, suggests a timely parallel.
"Regardless of how one feels about the machinations involved in getting this book to press, it has come out at a propitious moment in American cultural history," she says. "The parallels between the public response to the Supreme Court decision (banning school segregation in 1954) and that to Obergefellet. al. v. Hodges (upholding same-sex marriage) are remarkable. This really shows that what goes around comes around."