Barry Saunders

Saunders: Revisiting the literary classic that is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

You don’t need a crystal ball or the ability to read raw chitlins to predict this: over the next several months, millions of words will be written about Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

The discovery and imminent publication of a novel Lee presumably wrote prior to that one will have critics and essayists performing linguistic gymnastics to describe “Mockingbird,” which many consider the greatest Great American Novel.

Here’s another prediction: Of all the words written to describe that book, none will do so more succinctly and accurately than the two James Applewhite used when I spoke with him recently.

Applewhite, Duke University professor emeritus of English, called “To Kill A Mockingbird” “a story of ‘heroic defeat.’ ”

Good gosh awmighty, I wish I’d said that.

He explained. It “always bothers me that the heroic Atticus Finch cannot achieve his real goal of righting the wrong done to Tom,” he said. “In spite of his best efforts, he fails. That’s always a sorrow in the book, and to me it marks a period in Southern consciousness where the best a right-thinking white Southerner can do isn’t going to prevail against this huge weight of ingrained racial prejudice and vicious hatred.”

Yes, but would the book have been as powerful had Atticus gotten Tom off? I asked.

“In a sense, he gets him off, because he comes up with evidence that exonerates him,” Applewhite said. “The tragedy is that the culture is not receptive to evidence of innocence.”

Spoiler alert: Tom dies in the end.

The new book, “Go Set a Watchman,” is scheduled for a July release. The book, Applewhite said, “is a big deal for several reasons. For me, it portrays a later life of Scout, the little girl who was so close to her father and had no mother, who went through some rather traumatic times.”

Some people – or is it just me? – have vowed never to read the new book because of doubts that Lee, who reportedly has been diagnosed with advanced dementia in addition to being blind and deaf, was able to give consent for its release. Applewhite, though, said he is anxious to read it, to “see some view of Scout as an adult. ... That to me is fascinating.”

Lee and Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” were almost as famous for publishing just one novel each as they were for each writing one of the most acclaimed books ever. It’s as though they realized that if you hit a grand slam your first time up to the plate, why bother picking up a bat ever again?

Skeptics such as I view the book’s release as an illegitimate money grab by unscrupulous representatives. Applewhite, though, said, “It has to be legitimate in this sense. This is a manuscript written by Harper Lee. It preceded the existing version ... it was her first conception.”

‘Should be fascinating’

From a literary standpoint, Applewhite said, it is irrelevant whether this book measures up to “Mockingbird.”

“I strongly doubt that it will be as great, in a literary sense, but it will be of interest and deserves to be published,” he said. “It sounds to me from everything being reported that she is competent” to grant permission for its release. “I can’t at all criticize the book’s release. ... It should be fascinating.”

When the world acknowledged the enduring greatness of “Mockingbird” on its 50th anniversary five years ago, I wrote an ode to the 10th-grade English teacher from Richmond Senior High School in Rockingham, Mrs. Jeannette Martin, who introduced, sometimes forcefully, that book and others to me at a time when all I wanted to do was cut up or sleep in class.

Last week, when news of the sequel to “Mockingbird” came out, I called to ask if she is as intrigued as many in the literary world are.

I couldn’t ask, though, because her husband informed me that she is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s and probably wouldn’t remember me.