Monday, July 13, 2015

Pre-Review of Go Set a Watchman

I've been known to wear a t-shirt bearing the cover art for To Kill a Mockingbird.  I taught 9th and 10th grade English for ten years.  My dear departed dog was named Scout.  So, when the talk about the long-lost novel of Harper Lee being published began, of course people asked me about it.  I often demurred, saying I had a lot of thoughts about it, but we'll see what it looks like.  That of course I will read it, but I'll feel a little bad about it.  I wouldn't have put myself firmly in the "Harper Lee is being taken advantage of in her old age by a greedy publishing company" camp, but I could see the those folks' point.  Over the weekend, a friend texted, "So Atticus is RACIST in the new novel?!?!" This was news to me, but I hadn't read an actual review of Go Set a Watchman yet.

So, on the eve of the publication of the "sequel" to the only book I can come close to calling my favorite, I thought I'd put together some of my thoughts on a book that I believe is inherently flawed, but worth reading anyway.

I can't claim that my thoughts on Go Set a Watchman are entirely original, as I read just about anything about To Kill a Mockingbird that crosses my social media feeds.  But, since I first read To Kill a Mockingbird the summer between high school and college (no, I never had it assigned to me when I was a student myself, surprisingly), through the years I taught it and beyond, I've certainly thought about what can be gained from reading the book quite a bit. The only texts I've probably read more times than TKAM are A Separate Peace, The Lord of the Flies and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.  And truth be told, I probably usually only skimmed those other ones in preparation for discussion, rather than actually re-reading.  TKAM was compelling every time.

Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee's first draft novel, which everyone, including her, felt was not worthy of publication.  It was the springboard for writing TKAM, a book which I suspect benefitted greatly from a large amount of work with an editor.  I'm not saying that Lee didn't write like a dream, just that she wrote more tightly and more compellingly with someone else's eye.  The first book, which is now being published with only "a light copy edit," never got that treatment, and no one ever thought it was worth that effort.

I've read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman, and I found it enjoyable to finally hear Lee's voice in print again, like meeting back up with an old friend. I recognized her rambling, scene setting style, and her sly sense of humor.  I think the book is worth reading if for nothing else to see what Lee thought about those characters and where they would be in their later lives.  Those older characters were the ones she wrote first, so it's interesting to think about how they informed the ones we know.

I doubt the entire book will read that well, or that it will stand up well to a whole lot of scrutiny. That doesn't really bother me because I was willing to accept To Kill a Mockingbird as a beautiful one hit wonder.   I worry instead about the way it will bring all of Lee's work under scrutiny.  I am not sure any of it will hold up as well as I'd like it to in today's literary or cultural standards, and I wonder if that is fair.

I haven't read the reviews of the whole book beyond the headlines that call out Atticus as a racist, but I can't say I'd be surprised given the time period in which the book was written.  The original book is problematic in its stereotypical dealings with race anyway, something I always talked about in my classes.  The book's heart is for sure in the right place, but it is has influenced our cultural desire for a white savior quite a bit. I've always loved the book for its quiet lessons about courage and empathy as much as the big courtroom drama anyway.  Scout is a naive and unreliable narrator, learning about evil in her town for the first time.  Interesting that maybe her understanding of her father as an adult was different.

However, all of these questions and concerns are based on the unanswerable problem that Harper Lee didn't ever want to revisit this story herself during the prime of her writing life and so she didn't.  I don't believe it will really resolve for any of us what happened to these characters in any satisfactory way, and I'm not sure that is an author's job anyway, unless she thinks they still have stories to tell.

All signs point to Harper Lee being a lot more like Boo Radley than Jean Louise Finch. From what I've read, her sister Alice protected her the way Atticus recommended that Boo be kept protected, because "it'd be a sin to kill a mockingbird."  Alice died not too long before the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was "discovered" in a safety deposit box that belonged to Alice and Nelle Harper Lee.  I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say anyone is out to overtly manipulate Lee, but it does feel like she's no longer being sheltered the way she preferred for so long.

I look forward to reading the entirety of Go Set a Watchman, but I didn't pre-order it.  I had it in my head I'd take my time to get to it and enjoy it for what it is.  I'm worried about my ability to stay away from loud opinions about it in the coming days, so it seems I'll probably have to get to it faster than I planned.