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I said I would be happy to read a shopping list written by Harper Lee. I might have gotten my wish. This is not a novel: a story. It is an essay trying to become a story and not really succeeding in being a story or an essay.

I’m sure a lot of new writers have manuscripts like this in boxes under their beds, which is where they should stay. You have to write a lot of dreck to learn to write the great stuff, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of–don’t I post my own drawings here, bad as most of them are? You can see a common phenomenon here: a talented, deeply thoughtful novice has some ideas she wants to explore, and by God she’s going to explore them, and story be damned.

I was going to describe what happens to the story after Jean Louise discovers that her boyfriend and, far more crushingly, her father are members of a Citizens’ Council, but I can’t improve on Adam Gopnik’s concise summary in The New Yorker (July 27, 2015: 68): “Shocked, she confronts [Atticus], and starts on a series of static and prosy debates–first with her uncle Jack . . . and then with Atticus himself–about integration, the N.A.A.C.P., the Tenth Amendment, and other fifties-era subjects, all offered mechanically as set pieces, accented with oaths and ‘Honey, use your head!’s to make them sound a little more like dialogue.” Gopnik left out the boyfriend and aunt; she goes a few rounds with them too.

There are interesting ideas in there, even 60 years later, though they’re most interesting to me as a window into that period of our racial struggles–they are social history. But, as I said: not a novel. At this point in her writing life, Lee hasn’t figured out how to embody ideas in plot and character yet. They’re just air.

It’s a joy to see her terrific descriptions of characters and places. You can tell that this writer has a lot of talent. She has a lot to learn about dialogue and pacing, but those who have read To Kill a Mockingbird know that she will quickly learn it, and superlatively. Reading Go Set a Watchman, though, is like skipping along through a meadow of interesting characters and then suddenly finding oneself knee-deep in mud, unable to move. The characters stop talking to each other and start lecturing the reader through each other. The drama of their relationships grinds to a halt as we’re forced to listen in on an improbable family dispute that reads like an op-ed page. The most interesting dramas from the point of view of a Mockingbird reader–the confrontations with Calpurnia and Atticus–don’t make much sense because we don’t know these characters well enough to have a context for the conflict. (As readers of the previous book, we can interpret them as the characters by the same name–but, as I wrote in my previous post, that doesn’t quite work; the backstory is too altered. We don’t know this Cal or this Atticus–but, not to dodge the central issue raised by this book, I’ll write more about him in my next post about this book.)

The best parts of Go Set a Watchman are flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, and you can see the seeds of Mockingbird there, in incidents that didn’t make it into that book, such as the revival and baptism she, Jem and Dill put on in the yard, or her countdown to suicide when as a hopelessly naive twelve-year-old, she is sure she’s been impregnated by an unwanted French kiss. Lee’s astounding ability to convey what’s in the mind of a young girl comes through even in third person, and even with an omniscient narrator, which is used as clunkily here as inexpert writers do tend to use it, the reader popping suddenly into a secondary character’s head and popping out again. By the time she writes To Kill a Mockingbird, just a couple of years later, she is in masterful control of voice and point of view, and those portraits of places and people have become the verbal equivalents of Constable landscapes and Rembrandt faces. Sadly, that book remains her only successful novel.

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Go Set a Watchman has been described as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. After all, we see Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, her father Atticus, her uncle and aunt Jack and Alexandra, in the town of Maycomb, Alabama. But “sequel” is a misnomer, because a sequel is the continuation of a story. It becomes clear almost right away that the past of the characters in Watchman is not the past told about the characters with the same names in To Kill a Mockingbird. The editor of Watchman, Jonathan Burnham of Harper, qualifies it as “Reading in many ways like a sequel to Harper Lee’s classic novel,” and the many ways in which it is not a sequel have a significant impact on our interpretation of each book (more on that in post 4). The experiences of Scout1 are so different than the experiences of Scout2 that it’s best to read Go Set a Watchman as alternative history.

I’m not talking about minor changes and absences. Watchman can’t refer to every incident, even every important incident, in Mockingbird; that would be silly. And one key character who almost certainly did not exist in the Maycomb of To Kill a Mockingbird, Henry Clinton, remains in Go Set a Watchman because Lee needs him there. That’s not what makes it an alternative history novel.

Rather, I’m looking at three core events of To Kill a Mockingbird, events so central to the story that their omission makes the adult Jean Louise of Watchman a different person than the grown-up Scout who narrates Mockingbird.

First, at one point in Go Set a Watchman she strolls toward her childhood house and “steels herself for Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose’s onslaught” (112). In other words, in Watchman, Mrs. Dubose is still alive. I read the passage several times to see if it were perhaps meant as a flashback, and I’m pretty sure it’s not. The idea of putting Mrs. Dubose at the center of one of the most important events of a novel simply hadn’t occurred to Lee yet. And so we have an adult Jean Louise who did not sit with her brother afternoon upon afternoon while he read to an old woman who piled racist abuse on their family as, unbeknownst to the children, she fought to free herself from morphine. The incident with Mrs. Dubose ends Book I of Mockingbird. It is the experience that Atticus hopes will prepare them for an unwinnable fight in the courthouse, and it parallels it. But this Scout never had that experience.

Second, there is no Boo Radley in Watchman. Oh, I know he could well be dead by then, with no Radleys remaining in that house by the time Scout is a woman of 26. But even so, it is hard to imagine that an adult Scout, returning to her hometown and walking down memory lane in her old neighborhood, would not spare a thought for Boo Radley–unless he hadn’t been invented yet in her creator’s mind. Boo is the title character of Mockingbird (a designation he shares, of course, with Tom Robinson, and by extension with black people in general). His story frames the novel; it begins and ends it; it shapes Scout’s entire adult consciousness. How can there be a grown-up Scout who reflects on the summer of the trial without Boo Radley crossing her mind? Answer: this is a different Scout.

And finally, the Jean Louise of Go Set a Watchman is a woman who never saw Tom Robinson unjustly convicted. The story she identifies as pivotal to Atticus–pivotal to her understanding of who her father was and is–is similar enough that we know it’s the seed of Mockingbird, yet crucially changed.

Atticus Finch rarely took a criminal case; he had no taste for criminal law. The only reason he took this one was because he knew his client to be innocent of the charge, and he could not for the life of him let the black boy go to prison because of a half-hearted, court-appointed defense. The boy had come to him by way of Calpurnia, told him his story, and had told him the truth. The truth was ugly.

Atticus took his career in his hands, made good use of a careless indictment, took his stand before a jury, and accomplished what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge. (109)

Need any reader of To Kill a Mockingbird be reminded how important it is to the story, and to the development of Jem and Scout as characters, that Tom was not acquitted, but was convicted? Here are a few passages in case it’s been a while:

   “Aw, Atticus, let us come back,” pleaded Jem. “Please let us hear the verdict, please sir.”
“The jury might be out and back in a minute, we don’t know–” but we could tell Atticus was relenting. “Well, you’ve heard it all, so you might as well hear the rest. Tell you what, you all can come back when you’ve eaten your supper–eat slowly, now, you won’t miss anything important–and if the jury’s still out, you can wait with us. But I expect it’ll be over before you get back.”
“You think they’ll acquit him that fast?” asked Jem.
Atticus opened his mouth to answer, but shut it and left us. (210)

I shut my eyes. Judge Taylor was polling the jury: “Guilty . . . guilty . . . guilty .. . guilty . . . ” I peeked at Jem: his hands were white from gripping the balcony rail, and his shoulders jerked as if each “guilty” was a separate stab between them. (214)

“Atticus–” said Jem bleakly.
He turned in the doorway. “What, son?”
“How could they do it, how could they?”
“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it–seems that only children weep. Good night.” (215)

Although “things are always better in the morning” (215), that despair soaks into the novel and forms the narrator Scout’s account. Remember the haunting terms in which she recounts the moment of the verdict, linking it to the crisis of the rabid dog that Atticus had to shoot?:

   What happened after that had a dreamlike quality: in a dream I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers, and Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny. I saw something only a lawyer’s child could be expected to see, could be expected to watch for, and it was like watching Atticus walk into the street, raise a rifle to his shoulder and pull the trigger, but watching all the time knowing that the gun was empty. (213)

What was devastating was not just the conviction of a man who was obviously innocent, but the realization that it had been inevitable: that it was surprising to no one but themselves. Miss Maudie tells them, “[A]s I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that” (218). They learned from the verdict what every adult already knew: that under the comfortable exterior of Maycomb was the vicious impenetrability of a lynch mob. That disillusionment was what made the “children’s heart break” (282). And the Jean Louise of Watchman never experienced it.

I wish that Go Set a Watchman were a sequel, so that I could spend more time with the woman who emerged from these experiences. But the Jean Louise of Watchman isn’t her. She had a different childhood.

Next post: a novel or an essay?

When the news broke that another Harper Lee novel was to be released, like millions I felt excitement and trepidation. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) when I was twelve and have reread it every few years ever since. The characters live in my consciousness like people I have actually met. One time my sister and I were talking about the book and I said something about Miss Maudie Atkinson. “Oh, Maudie’s great,” Erika said, exactly as if we were talking about a favorite neighbor of our own. So the question of “What the hell happened to Atticus in the next twenty years?” is important and (despite internet scoffing about people’s being upset about a fictional character) anything but trivial. It’s at the core of Go Set a Watchman (GSAW) and very relevant to our lives in the United States in 2015. But it’ll be the subject of my fourth post on this book. This post is about something different.

The trepidation I felt had mostly to do with the circumstances of publication. Lee is deaf and blind now, and the communiques about this new book–actually written before TKAM and set aside–came entirely from her executor. Was someone just cashing in on an old draft that Lee never wanted to see the light? She had been asked, of course, why she’d only published one book (to which she once answered that she’d said all that she had to say); she could have had GSAW published anytime; why wasn’t it published until after she was incapacitated? It was suspicious.

As soon as I began the new book, my suspicions grew. Whole descriptions were almost identical in the two books: not the fleeting descriptions such as one expects in a series (“Harry had jet-black hair that was always untidy, bright green eyes, and a scar on his forehead in the shape of a lightning bolt”–repeat seven times), but vivid portraits such as no writer would deliberately use twice. For one of the most obvious examples, here are two portraits of Scout and Jem’s Aunt Alexandra:

To all parties present and participating in the life of the county, however, Alexandra was the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was a disapprover; she was an incurable gossip.

When Aunt Alexandra went to finishing school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning; she was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn.  (Go Set a Watchman, page 28)

. . . . To all parties present and participating in the life of the county, Aunt Alexandra was one of the last of her kind: she had river-boat, boarding-school manners; let any moral come along and she would uphold it; she was born in the objective case; she was an incurable gossip. When Aunt Alexandra went to school, self-doubt could not be found in any textbook, so she knew not its meaning. She was never bored, and given the slightest chance she would exercise her royal prerogative: she would arrange, advise, caution, and warn. (To Kill a Mockingbird, Popular Library paperback edition, page 131)

The reason for the similarity is obvious: when writing her second book, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee mined her earlier draft for some of its best passages. That makes complete sense.

Surely, then, if she decided to take GSAW out of her file cabinet 50 years later, she would read it for such repetitions and rewrite these passages. The most likely explanation for the fact that they keep appearing is that Harper Lee was not involved in the publication of this book. This is a deeply sad and disturbing fact. When people wondered whether Go Set a Watchman could possibly attain the standard set by To Kill a Mockingbird, I said I didn’t care; I would read Harper Lee’s shopping list. But damn it, only if she wanted me to. (It’s also possible that she gave the go-ahead but did not reread or edit it for publication. Given the craftswomanship she put into TKAM, I don’t give it serious credence. But who knows.)

I’ve had it happen to me: a mix-up in the editing process led to an earlier draft of an essay I wrote (this one, in fact) being included for publication. Later printings corrected the error, but I wince at the knowledge that the half-formed, awkwardly-stated thoughts that I and the editors wisely removed are out there on people’s bookshelves.

It was not easy to read Go Set a Watchman, and one reason was my growing remorse as I felt as if I were peeking into someone’s private papers. Harper Lee has given me so much, and it appears I have repaid her by reading an inferior draft that she never meant anyone to see.

Next post: Not the same Scout

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