I’m trying to be restrained here, because ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is currently displayed wall to wall in my local bookshops and I really want to give it time before succumbing to the hype. I didn’t read ‘Mockingbird’ until 35 years after its publication. True, I wasn’t alive for most of that time, but I think it’s only fair for ‘Watchman’ to wait it’s turn.
This means that rather than spend this evening inhaling that new book smell, or staring in frustration at a refusing-to-load Kindle, I’m going to enjoy revisiting what I love about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
There is something about the description of Maycomb that has enthralled me since I first read the novel. I don’t know if it was a point of reading a coming-of-age novel at exactly the right time, but I thought, and still think, it’s one of the most beautifully realised towns in literature. In fact, I have always been a fan of the first part of the novel over the second; Tom Robinson’s trial is so unjust and traumatic that later scenes in the novel are really hard to read. The opening though, where we first see the town through the young Scout’s eyes, is pure joy. Lee is a brilliant narrator and when she introduces the town the nostalgia, sympathy and cynicism are palpable:
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.
People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb Country…
This was my first introduction to the Southern Gothic genre, and it set the bar incredibly high.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is a novel for and about book lovers. When the wonderfully ineffectual Miss Caroline realises Scout is literate ‘she looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.’ So far so funny, and it is very funny, but what comes next is possibly my reading manifesto: ‘until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One doesn’t love breathing.’ I know exactly how she feels.
There we are, just a few extracts to show why I love ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ so much. I haven’t even mentioned Dill, Jem or Boo Radley, let alone Mayella and the incredible, and harrowing, second section. There’s the snow in Maycomb and Scout dressing up as a ham. There’s also Calpurnia, if anyone deserves their own follow up novel, it’s Calpurnia.
I’ll be interested to hear what people think of ‘Watchman’, but I think that I’ll just stick with ‘Mockingbird’ for a little while longer. Whatever comes of this new publication, Lee has more than earned her reputation as one of the greatest American novelists.