Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I worked at a bookstore this summer, and I’ve had a lot of conversations about this summer’s blockbuster, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  This is the “found” manuscript that pre-dates To Kill a Mockingbird.  Lee wrote this version first, and it was rejected by an editor with the suggestion that she instead write the back story.  She did, and that book is To Kill a Mockingbird.  There is a lot of controversy about this “new” book–both about its content (Atticus is a racist?  What?!?) and its publication (Lee may or may not be of sound enough mind to have given her true permission, and the timing is suspect coming just after the death of her sister/business manager.  Lee was always adamant in the past that this book not be published.).  Taking all of that into consideration, I read the book, as I have taught Mockingbird for 26 years and plan to continue.  I must know all things Harper Lee. To assuage my conscience in supporting what is probably a money grab that exploits her, I did not purchase it, but read a borrowed copy.  It almost worked.

Here are my thoughts after having read the book:

It is clearly a rough draft, and the editor was correct to reject it.  I am not of the belief that has been expressed by some that this proves the rumor that Lee did not write Mockingbird (Truman Capote is the usually suggested ghost writer). The voice of the writer is exactly the same in both books.  In Watchman, however, the structure is much weaker.  Lee spends too much time “telling” and not enough time “showing.”  She skims the surface of events that need to be fleshed out. For those who know Mockingbird well, it makes perfect sense when Scout is horrified that her heroic father falls from grace.  But Mockingbird did not exist when this book was written.  Without the back story, the reader simply would not believe that Atticus was such a hero, or at least would wonder why.  Newsflash:  writers of bestsellers usually have many failed manuscripts in their drawers and attics before the book that hits it big.  To be a polished, competent, brilliant writer on the first try is pretty much unheard of.  This is a first attempt.  Like most first attempts, it is clumsy.  Add to that the fact that  Mockingbird came only after friends of Lee’s, the composer Michael Brown and his wife Joy, provided her with a year’s wages and the note, ““You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.”  This freedom from having to earn a living gave Lee the time and focus that all writers yearn for, but only a few find.  Maybe that, plus the help of an astute editor and/or agent made the difference between Watchman and Mockingbird. Maybe Lee just got better with practice.

There has also been much hand-wringing over Atticus’s racism in the book.  I maintain that this makes us uncomfortable in ways that we should be made uncomfortable.  “Good white people” cling to Atticus Finch like a life raft saving us from the stormy seas of our own history (and present).  But it is unrealistic to believe that a 75-year-old white man who had spent his entire life in rural Alabama would have embraced desegregation in the 50s.  Lee is not promoting Atticus’s view that black people are “in their infancy as a culture” and not ready for the responsibilities of voting and self-determination.  She is exposing it. Scout (Lee) is horrified by it, and so is the reader.  That’s a thing Lee gets right in this rough draft–she makes us feel what her main character is feeling, and that’s no small feat. She also shows us that it is not impossible for a good-hearted person who loves law and equality above all else to be paternalistic and condescending to a culture that he sees as inferior to his own.  In this book, Atticus is wrong, and that allows him to be human.

White America would like to forget our racist past and slap a “post-racial” banner over our present.  Both are dishonest.  Both cause harm. Lee’s book makes us confront the reality of a particular time in America, in a particular place.  I hope that we can withstand that.  If we can’t, then there is little hope that we can withstand the scrutiny we need to be giving the present state of race relations in America, and little hope for the change we must demand from ourselves as well as others.

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