We read novels to be brought to places we don’t know, populated by all sorts of people whose lives and choices are different from ours.
One treasured place for many readers is long-ago Maycomb, Alabama, so hot and languid in summer that “a day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer.”
It was there, in vivid prose, that the powerful events of “To Kill a Mockingbird” took place — where Scout the tomboy witnessed the principled stand of her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, as he defended a black farmhand accused of rape and confronted the abiding racism of the time.
The author of that book, Harper Lee, died last week at age 89, leaving behind her beloved story.
Novels, even the classics, face uncertain prospects as time passes. Some run their course as relevant, then gather dust on shelves, while others are quietly cherished forever.
Then there was the strange twist of fate that suddenly put “Mockingbird” back in the literary conversation last year. We reread it and — hurrah! — found it as wonderful as we remembered. This scene, for instance:
Atticus stood up and walked to the end of the porch. When he completed his examination of the wisteria vine he strolled back to me.
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — ”
“ — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
The odd circumstances leading to the novel’s reappraisal: After Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960, she all but disappeared. Then, mysteriously, last February came the revelation of a second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” described somewhat nuttily by the publisher as a “prequel sequel.” This was, we were told, the book Lee wrote first about fictional Maycomb but put aside because her editor loved its flashback sequences so much that Lee was inspired to write an entire novel in that style.
The arrival of “Go Set a Watchman” set off fireworks, but also alarm bells. Lee was elderly and infirm; her protective sister had died recently at age 103. Suddenly a new Harper Lee book appears. Some people wondered whether she had really wanted the book released.
The stakes were high. Would “Watchman” be hailed as a found treasure? Or revealed to be a glorified first draft? Would it burnish or tarnish Lee’s literary reputation?
We sided with the skeptics, the disappointed, the horrified: “Go Set a Watchman” read like a draft of “Mockingbird” that should have stayed stashed in a safe-deposit box. In that version, which takes place in the late 1950s, Atticus is older but not wiser. He’s comfortable in the segregated world and says racist things.
The idea that Atticus changed over time could have been intriguing. But in this case all it did was muddy a literary icon.
No matter. We read other books last summer that we didn’t like. They’re forgotten, and so shall “Watchman” be.
What remains is Harper Lee’s triumphant “Mockingbird.”
You haven’t read it? Or haven’t read it in a while?
Scout, Atticus, Jem, Boo Radley and the other characters are waiting for you in languid, complex, far-off Maycomb. If you’ve never had the chance, now would be a great time to visit.