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Harper Lee’s old manuscript causes brand new problems for American readers

Death is usually how the problem is handled.

Say you’ve got an old manuscript in a safe deposit box that has never been published and the world doesn’t know about either. Say further that its contents are explosive and that its 89-year-old author – who now finds speech and other communication difficult after a stroke – is known for only one previous book, an American literary classic.

Let us further say that because of the omnipresence of that book in the American educational system for half a century, funds for the author’s life and care and comfort will never be in short supply.

Unless she insists on publication in her lifetime – something she’s never done before – what could be more sensible for publisher and friends than to do what is most often done: Let mortality prevail. Wait until she’s no longer with us and then publish it, along with all the other things scholars usually find.

Death is the great leveler for writers, artists and musicians. It’s a great revisionist and settler for their careers. Everything that’s been crated up is uncrated. In life, for instance, Miles Davis would never have approved the release of some of the music now released in his name – he would have been wrong, but that’s another story – but now that he’s long gone, nothing can stop it.

The world would never have known the work of Franz Kafka if his friend and literary executor Max Brod had obeyed Kafka’s instructions and burned it. Brod defied his friend’s instruction, which is why Kafka is now one of the cornerstones of Western literature of the 20th century.

The found manuscript in the safe deposit box we’re talking about is Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” which was officially published last Tuesday but whose explosion was set off July 10. That’s when Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review sensibly jumped the gun and delivered the culture-rocking news.

What Kakutani wrote about Atticus Finch, the center of Lee’s only novel until now “To Kill A Mockingbird”: He was “Kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s. As indelibly played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, he was the perfect man – the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness …

“Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel ‘Go Set a Watchman’ … Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter, ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?’ ”

Now, what? The damage has now been done and Lee has been alive to see it. It is utterly inarguable that no one will ever be able to think of her book “To Kill a Mockingbird” quite the same way again.

It is more than possible, of course, that it fills her with joy to know that very thing. She has never led a public life, though, and now with whatever incapacities of speech she has, we’re not likely to know her feelings in much detail.

So much of the shock comes from two things: 1.) The enormous stature of “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a pillar of the educational system in America. When we want children to read great novels, we give them “Mockingbird” as soon as we think they’re ready for it. 2.) Robert Mulligan’s 1962 movie is a great one and, as Kakutani suggested, Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch, widower father of two kids, is one of the greatest portrayals of paternal virtue in American movies.

Peck as Atticus Finch is the father we all wanted to have and the one that we all wanted to be – kind, loving, courageous, understanding, strong as an oak and, when absolutely necessary, able to break out an old skill, pick up a rifle and plug a dangerous, rabid dog right between the eyes.

How many million American men have learned the basics of fathering from Atticus Finch? (Add a little Spencer Tracy at his best and you’re set for life.)

And now, in “Go Set a Watchman,” we have an Atticus Finch whom his own daughter Jean Louise knows has just become a member of the White Citizens’ Council.

Someone had no interest in letting nature take its course. Was it Harper Publishers, who brought out the book? Lee’s new adviser team, which no longer includes her ever-watchful and now dead older sister, not to mention a new lawyer? Or everyone, including the author herself who, according to the official story and oral evidence heard on PBS, is on board with the publication of the book that will henceforth permanently alter the landscape around her first published book?

No book within memory has aroused suspicions and waspishness as this one has.

In the New Yorker, which once employed Lee and her flamboyant friend Truman Capote, any reverence that reviewer Adam Gopnick might have felt for either the author or her universally loved only novel before this was replaced by skepticism well on the way to snark. (The News’ review of the book will appear on our book pages next week.)

“The heavily hyped appearance of Harper Lee’s new or very old or, anyway, indistinctly dated novel … reflects an ambitious publishing venture – complete with slow, striptease-style press leaks and first chapters and excited pre-publication surmise – which all the other apparatus of literature, reviews included, is expected to serve, and has. Not since Hemingway’s estate sent down seemingly completed novels from on high, long after the author’s death, has a publisher gone about coolly exploiting a much loved name with a product of such mysterious provenance.”

To Gopnik, the book’s pedigree is “sticky.” “If you don’t know Atticus is a hero – and in this book you really don’t except by assertion – why would you care that he seems to defect to villainy however well he defends it?”

It seems to me, it is that exact question an astute editor at Lippincott publishing all those years ago might have asked in rejecting “Go Set a Watchman” which, in turn, set Lee on the path to writing “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In the Sunday New York Times book review of “Watchman” (which has been available online since Tuesday), Randall Kennedy criticizes Lee’s response “to the novel’s basic dramatic question: ‘How should you deal with someone who has loved you unstintingly when you find out that this same person harbors ugly, dangerous, social prejudices?’

“Would it have been better for this earlier novel to have remained unpublished? Though it does not represent Harper Lee’s best work, it does reveal more starkly the complexity of Atticus Finch, her most admired character. ‘Go Set a Watchman’ demands that its readers abandon the immature sentimentality engrained by middle school lessons about the nobility of the white savior and the mesmerizing performance of Gregory Peck in the film adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ ”

Someone once asked Harper Lee whether what was obvious about “Mockingbird” was literally true – that Atticus’ young daughter, Scout, is the childhood version of Lee herself. Lee wittily answered that the character she most identified with was Boo Radley.

Maybe she’s telling us now with the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” that Boo Radley is ready to emerge, in his way, from his hermetic and reclusive life and lead “Mockingbird” readers by the hand out of that immature sentimentality and into the very real world that Atticus Finch was then a part of.

Young Scout was a much more predictable American heroine. Boo Radley is the surprising one it takes grown-ups to understand.