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I got my print copy of Go Set a Watchman yesterday.
Most people who read To Kill a Mockingbird identify with Scout. The character I most identify with is Mayella Ewell. She famously said, “I got somethin’ to say,” I’m going to say what I have to say.
Yes, I read the New York Times review. So what? I have been writing book reviews for years. Here are my bona fides:
I was born and raised in south Alabama, less than forty miles from where Harper Lee grew up, a few decades before me. I attended and received a degree from the University of Alabama. I wrote my first published novel about love and racial tension in a small southern town, set a couple of decades later than To Kill a Mockingbird. My second novel continued the story, set in the same place, with the same characters, in time a decade or two after the civil rights movement of the sixties. I still loved those characters and that place. It’s where I am from.
I sent Harper Lee a copy of my first book, and received a lovely hand-written reply from Alice Lee. Nelle can’t see well enough to read fine print any more, she said, but wishes me well in my writing endeavors.
My mother was my Atticus, my hero, my touchstone. She was born the same year as Harper Lee, and so grew up, poor white but not trash, in the same time period, in the same place, south Alabama.
Mama occasionally used the n-word, but she meant no offense by it. Some black people are crazy, mean, and lazy, just like some white people, but some black people are good, Christian, decent people despite all the incentives to be otherwise. They are sometimes better than good, Christian, decent white people who know no better than to read their Bibles too literally and examine their own family history not closely enough.
Go Set a Watchman is what it is, a rough draft of a book submitted but not accepted for publication. Yes, there are sentences, some paragraphs, that are identical to To Kill a Mockingbird. No one should be surprised by that. This draft was set aside, and completely reworked, through an intense and prolonged editing process, and emerged as the finely crafted novel so many cherish today.
Nor should any fan of the classic work be surprised that the characters in Go Set a Watchman are different. The original Atticus was an old man, trying to stem the fast pace of change in his little town, and says some things that are racist. Scout is shocked and disillusioned to find out that her father is a member of the local Citizens’ Council, a more refined version of the KKK, with membership culled from civic leaders and businessmen. supposedly to curtail the violent excesses of the KKK and to promote a slower turn toward desegregation and enfranchisement, sort of a benevolent attempt to influence events without bombs, burning crosses, white robes, and lynching.
Jean Louise did not accept this camouflage any more than anyone would. Horrified to find that the father she idealized is an old man with fear in his heart, if not hatred, she must come to terms with the thought that her entire belief system, predicated on what she thought were her father’s beliefs, must stand on its own and not depend on the bolster of Atticus, who was not perfect, not a hero, just an old man with a crippling disease, and with a dis-ease about the changes that were happening too fast for the pace of life he lived.
I cried as I read the ending, bogged down in didactic pedantry, most especially in chapter fourteen, when Jean Louise turns to her Uncle Jack to explain and make everything better, just as he did when she was a child. This didacticism continues when Jean Louise faces Atticus in his office. It is hard to swallow, but underneath, and more to the point, there is Scout’s feeling of betrayal, the yearning of a child for reassurance that the father of her idyllic worship is not a coward, as she calls Atticus, among many other names. Jean Louise rants, nearly hysterical with the dissonance. Uncle Jack asks, “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?”
Lest some of you who also worshiped Atticus and put him on a pedestal resort to the same hysteria, let me assure you that it is safe for you to read this book. While the racism of Atticus is not fully redeemed or reconciled, Uncle Jack does give us this hope: “The law is what he lives by. . .he’ll always do it by the letter and by the spirit of the law. That’s the way he lives.”
So this is what I have to say. If you look for another classic morality tale, if you look for heroes of perfection, you won’t find it here. Jean Louise, all grown up, is smart and smart-mouthed, and her mouth gets her in trouble. Jem is not present in Go Set a Watchman. Calpurnia is seen very little, Dill not at all, except in flashbacks to Scout’s childhood that are just as wonderful and funny as such scenes were in To Kill a Mockingbird. One thing this rough draft, now published for the world to criticize, proves is that Nelle Harper Lee could write. The editors at Lippincott saw that, back in 1957, and that’s why they took her on.
Miss Lee was asked if she wanted to go through the editing process with this manuscript, and she said no. She is too old to care what people think any more, not that she ever did, much. If people are crazy enough to pay to read an old dusty manuscript, let them. If they want to see her feet of clay, then it’s about damn time. She is eighty nine years old, deaf, nearly blind, and resides in an assisted living facility, but she is still sharp as a tack and just as smart-mouthed as Scout or grown-up Jean Louise ever thought of being. She lives, still, in Monroeville, Alabama, that place she once loved so passionately that she wrote an American classic, a paean to small town life, to fathers we once thought of as heroes, to children.
Miss Lee was asked to write an introduction to the fortieth anniversary edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. She refused, so the publishers instead posted a short note she wrote in 1993: :”Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble.”
Probably against what Miss Lee would advise, I have written here a long preamble to encourage those millions who read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird that it is okay. You can read this without shredding illusions you may have held about fictional characters.
To the grown-up and confused Jean Louise, I say this: If Nelle Harper Lee can go home again, so can you.
Go Set a Watchman, 2015, Harper Collins.