The Comeback of the Mockingbird

Harper Lee is not a common writer. She wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird” when she was 34. She won the Pulitzer Prize thanks to this novel in 1961, and overwhelmed by fame, she hid away from the world. “To Kill a Mockingbird” became a novel of great ideological effectiveness in favor of civil rights in the United States. It dreamily tells the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer from a small town in Alabama — an idealization of Monroeville, Lee’s birthplace — who defends a young black man accused of having raped a white woman. The novel’s liberal prestige spread all over the world when Robert Mulligan filmed “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962. Horton Foote, another novelist determined to denounce racial violence in the South, wrote the excellent script and a brilliant Gregory Peck played Atticus. OK, Harper Lee, a writer of just one novel so far, comes back with the sequel to her first novel. From a nursing home, fighting against oblivion, Lee will publish “Go Set a Watchman” on July 14. Atticus’s daughter comes to town 20 years after the events of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

It is clear then that Lee is not a common writer. She comes back after a 50-year silence with a sequel to her only great success that, in fact, was written before. Publishers, booksellers and critics will be busy for the following six months. It looks like an operation of literary archaeology. American literature must have little to offer today if it is suffering such excitement because of a novel written in the early 1960s.

Will Harper Lee’s mysticism have resisted the passing of time? “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a seraphic, dreamy novel built upon the artifice of a girl — Jean Louise, Scout, Atticus’s daughter — who remembers her father by idealizing his figure along with her brother Jem and a little friend who looks like Truman Capote. Atticus is illuminated like a Platonic idea embodied against the current within a hostile environment. It exudes anthropological optimism. This is its last sentence: “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them.” It is unclear whether this is the dominant perception in the United States nowadays.

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