From Go Set a Watchman to Kill a Mockingbird

Hello? (Cue: Whistling wind sound echoing around a chamber, with no response). I have strayed far and wide with this blog. Going forward, my posts will focus on crafting fictional stories. It’s a process that I have been grappling with for a few years on and off now and, hey, who knows, maybe you are too. While I can’t promise the posts will be regular, I will share thoughts when I have them, and hope some of you will too.

To start things off, I’ve just read Harper Lee’s newly published novel, Go Set a Watchman. Like many readers, I think it should be viewed as a step, a “station,” along the way to its final brilliant destination: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Steve Almond says: My basic theory is that most pieces of failed writing—whether stories, poems, or novels—are usually attempts to tell a story that the author simply wasn’t ready to tell yet. This is why so much of my bad poetry is clogged with overwrought language, because I’m stonewalling basically, trying to sound profound and beautiful rather than telling the truth. …But I’ve also come to accept that bad writing doesn’t just mark a creative dead end. It’s a necessary station on the path to good writing. [note: you can only read the article if you become a [free] member of the Association of Writers]

Watchman was part of a process that eventually led to a much stronger novel. Told in the third person, from Jean Louise’s (a grown up 26-year-old Scout) perspective, the book gets bogged down in long-winded discussions on civil rights and race relations issues.

Jean Louise returns back from New York on a holiday, and feels alienated and increasingly disillusioned in what should be her home. The most vivid and captivating chapters are the ones that flash back to her childhood, such as the scene with Henry on the water tower. No doubt this is what prompted her first editor to encourage Harper Lee to expand those flashbacks, and to rewrite the entire novel from that perspective.

Harper Lee was trying to tell a more truthful tale of the south in The Watchman. But, maybe she wasn’t ready to tell that more complex and nuanced story and to pose the more difficult questions that The Watchman tries to explore. We know her editor (who had the general public in mind) knew it wouldn’t sell, or sell well, in its current form.

I agree with Ursula LeGuinn that to read Atticus, Jean Louise’s father, only as racist is to miss the point entirely. We first saw an idealised view of him through the eyes of his young daughter Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Now we are seeing him through her older eyes, and she sees, for the first time, that he is imperfect. She is seeing her father, including his faults, for the first time in the naked light. And she is deeply uneasy – disgusted – by his racist views. Can she recover from the crisis and build bridges with her father? That is a key point Lee is making in the novel.

But, for me, the book really fell down in the way her crisis at the end is resolved. A slap from her uncle, some whiskey and his explanation that she is now an entirely separate entity from her father: “ are your own person now”, felt inadequate to end this major life crisis. Frankly, she is convinced too quickly and easily by her uncle. Because it’s resolved so quickly, we have little time to explore Jean Louise’s thought process. And, finally, it seems unlikely that a woman in her mid-twenties would be considering her relationship with and her view of her father. It just doesn’t wash for me as a reader.

Perhaps each great novel takes a major reworking, as with Joyce’s Stephen Hero, which was rejected and later reworked into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is how this American bookseller, Brilliant Books, which is providing refunds on the book sees  it:

“Go Set A Watchman” is … a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected. The book, and some of the characters therein, are very much a product of this era in the South. We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel. This situation is comparable to James Joyce’s stunning work ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, and his original draft ‘Stephen Hero’. ‘Hero’ was initially rejected, and Joyce reworked it into the classic ‘Portrait’. ‘Hero’ was eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans—not as a new ‘Joyce novel’. We would have been delighted to see “Go Set A Watchman” receive a similar fate.”

Having written and thought from the perspective of a 26-year-old, Lee has already gotten deep into the psyche of Jean Louise before delving further back into her life as a child. That can only have deepened her knowledge and understanding of Scout.

But, in the retelling, Atticus becomes a near god-like figure as we see him through the eyes of his young daughter, Scout, who idealises him. A white man helping a black man: a black and white tale with good and evil clearly demarcated. Perhaps that’s exactly what sold it to the American people, and made it the best seller that it was.

It is tantalising to think about what would have happened, had she returned to the Watchman again and stuck with the older Jean Louise.

As Emma Darwin, who writes about historical fiction, says: “…many readers (especially at the commercial end of the market) are uncomfortable with a character who they can’t work out – who they don’t know whether to like or hate.”

Atticus is much harder to understand and empathise with in The Watchman. We might not hate Atticus by the end of it, but we revile his racist attitudes. Trying to empathise with a racist leaves us deeply unsettled and uncomfortable as readers. This discomforting experience as a reader certainly wouldn’t have made it a bestseller. It would have been a more complex, modern story, but is that what people wanted in the 1960s? If she had stuck to her guns, would we have heard of Harper Lee?

More tantalising still is the question of how one tale “mutated” into another, entirely different tale of redemption taught in every school across most of the English speaking world? This New York Times’ review asked the same question:

How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father? How did a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech (from the casually patronizing to the disgustingly grotesque — and presumably meant to capture the extreme prejudice that could exist in small towns in the Deep South in the 1950s) mutate into a redemptive novel associated with the civil rights movement, hailed, in the words of the former civil rights activist and congressman Andrew Young, for giving us “a sense of emerging humanism and decency”?

Unless someone can interview Lee about her writing process, we will never know.

Ursula Le Guin suggests Lee never wrote another novel because she lost self-credibility writing a novel that she knew was “untrue” in order to gain mainstream success and recognition:

“Now, having read the book, I glimpse a different tragedy. Lee was a young writer on a roll, with several novels in mind to write after this one. She wrote none of them. Silence, lifelong. I wonder if the reason she never wrote again was because she knew her terrifyingly successful novel was untrue. In obeying the dictates of popular success, letting wishful thinking corrupt honest perception, she lost the self-credibility she, an honest woman, needed in order to write.”

Who knows? All we can say with certainty is that Lee’s first foray into writing a novel shows us all that even some of the best writers aren’t pounding out fabulous stuff everyday. A new perspective, and lots more time crafting the words can change absolutely everything.

We don’t know why one book evolved into such a different beast, with such different messages and meanings. But perhaps there is a risk of being seduced into showing the world as we want it to be, as we think it ought to be, rather than how it is, because we know readers are often only too happy to submit to the deception.