The Books of Harper Lee
Over seventy years ago, on a wintery night in the 1950s, a young woman was working on the latest iteration of her novel when she threw the manuscript out of the window and into the snow. The woman had yet to achieve any success, but she’d recently landed a deal with a publisher, whose editor she phoned, in tears over the struggle she faced in writing a book which had clearly begun to cause her so much pain. It’s a fact we can be grateful for, that on the night in question the editor managed to convince the young woman to march outside immediately and pick up every page, and a reminder for both readers and writers alike, that great works of literature don’t tend to arrive as fully formed works of art. It’s just that you rarely get a chance to see the hard work, abandoned plot threads, and difficult revelations that led to their creation.
No more has this been true than in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a book that was rescued from the icy obsolescence of that evening snow and which helped the United States come to terms with its fraught race relations thanks in part to the author’s down to earth sensibility born of her experience as a child raised in the American south.
Indeed, To Kill a Mockingbird was an immediate hit when it was published in 1960 and has sold over forty million copies since. In the years after its release, Harper Lee didn’t publish another novel and shied away from doing any interviews, which at times led to some speculation as to how she managed to create a fable that’s charmed so many generations of readers. To her countless fans, her success always just seemed to be the wholesome story of a country girl who made it big. However, all of this was put under the microscope once again when in 2015 the publisher HarperCollins announced there was another book written by Lee which had been gathering dust in a safety deposit box over the preceding years. This book was called Go Set a Watchman and was framed as a followup for To Kill a Mockingbird in a press release from the publisher who stated it read as a sequel of sorts in that the story was about the same characters set twenty years down the line. Though there was some celebration in the lead up to the novels release, it quickly became a source of controversy, not only because the quality of writing turned out to be drastically inferior, but also because it illustrated some troubling views on race that were nowhere to be seen in To Kill a Mockingbird. Upon reading it, most people had to question when exactly Harper Lee had written the thing, and, more worryingly, whether she actually agreed for it to be published all these years down the line. Given what the book contained, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for a lot of people it was like finding out their favourite grandparent was a member of the Klan. To understand this dramatic statement though, you need to take a look at what made Harper Lee’s debut novel such a cherished slice of Americana and why it ‘s still considered an all time classic, regardless of all the controversy it’s much maligned counterpart has caused.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama and is loosely based on Harper Lee’s own childhood years of the 1930s. As described in the book, it was a time when the town was somewhat out of sync with the social progress that the rest of the country was working towards. Nevertheless, Lee’s story conjures up a great deal of nostalgia for the era, even when it’s clear that the segregation of white and black people is still a major part of day-to-day life. To be fair, this issue does actually become a core part of the narrative when Tom Robinson, an African American man, is wrongfully accused of attacking a white woman. Throughout the latter half of the book, Lee quite methodically illustrates the issues that led to the incident as well as the injustice Tom Robinson is faced with when brought to trial. That said, however succinctly Lee outlines these problems, it’s fair to say that the success of To Kill a Mockingbird is largely down to her incredible gift for capturing the personalities of her cast. In fact, you could go as far to say that to love To Kill a Mockingbird is to love the characters of Jean Louise Finch, better known as ‘Scout’, and her father, Atticus Finch, who each became icons in their own right.
In the book, Atticus Finch is the lawyer who’s asked to represent Tom Robinson at trial. While he’s respected in town, he’s a little different from the other residents of Maycomb, in that though he recognises the complicated customs that have allowed so much prejudice to thrive, he’s sympathetic to those who hold intolerant views even as he attempts to live an honest and principled life. As it’s so often put, Atticus tries to act the same way at home as he does on the street, meaning it’s very important to him to behave honorably regardless of who’s watching. Further to this, though his beliefs are challenged to the extent that he’s spit on by a drunk on one occasion and has to face down an angry mob on another, he’s respectful of other people to the point that no matter how much they insult him, his habit is simply to turn the other cheek in the genuine hope they’ll learn to comport that themselves with a little more class. Frankly, when I describe Atticus like this, he does sound like a bit of an otherworldly saint, but it’s a credit to Lee that when you’re reading the book he always feels like a real person even as he holds onto his beliefs against incredible odds. On top of this, because the way in which the story is written is half the joy of the book, I think he’s a character that you can get to know best in literary form. That is to say, though the popular image of Atticus has been somewhat defined by Gregory Peck’s performance in the 1962 film, it’s a very Hollywoodised interpretation of the character.
Evidenced by the scene where Gregory Peck has to shoot the dog, which has become infected with rabies, Peck makes it clear that Atticus doesn’t enjoy having to take on the unsavory task, but in the book he’s a lot more hesitant mostly because of his distaste for guns, something that the film team apparently decided wouldn’t be a good look for their leading man. More importantly though, in general I think there’s a much more aloof quality to Atticus which can really only be appreciated when you read about him through the eyes of his daughter – Scout, the girl who acts as both the pugnacious main character of the book as well as our lens through which we view this distant place and time.
It’s been said of Scout that she’s a girl who refuses to see the world in terms of black and white. But I think this is a bit of a reductive interpretation of the character.
In point of fact, Scout often demands to have the world defined in terms that are straight forward and free of subtext but is usually asked to take on a more complicated frame of mind. As a short tempered but loveable scamp she often blurts out comments that come off as ignorant or rude, which is pretty understandable given all of the perplexing social attitudes she’s expected to learn. What’s more, because these attitudes tend to be riddled with all of the hypocrisy required to uphold a status quo that claims one race is superior to another, she’s often put at odds with the adults who expect her to toe the line without having to ask where the line actually is. For example, on the one hand she’s been taught that a family like the Cunninghams are of a lower order, while on the other she’s expected to treat them as respected company while they’re in her home. And, most challengingly of all, when Tom Robinson is accused of assaulting a white woman and will most likely be convicted for the crime simply because of the colour of his skin, she’s forced to learn that her entire town is operating on a form of justice that isn’t based on what’s righteous or true. Sadly, as readers we might have a more world-weary outlook on the matter. This is 1930’s Alabama after-all. Everybody knows that’s just the way of things. But because Scout is so insistent for the matter to be explained in plain English, she actually manages to serve as a wakeup call for both the people in the book and for some of the more complacent readers. Moreover, as with Atticus, she also comes off as a nuanced and believable person rather than just a talking head for the author’s beliefs.
Of course, it’s not as if Atticus and Scout exist in isolation. A lot of the life they exude comes from their interactions with each other and with the wonderful cast of characters that surround them.
Scout’s brother Jem is Atticus in miniature. While he insists on acting more mature than Scout she’s often able to drag him down to her level, even if it means starting a wrestling match in the mud. Together they share a friend in Dill, an unusual looking boy who visits their town each summer and gains a bit of a reputation as a liar. Dill, as it so happens, is based on Harper Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote, who would go on to gain both fame and infamy in later years as a talented novelist and as a purveyor of lies. As an aside, I’ll just quickly mention how fun it is to see these two literary giants cross paths in their respective novels. Harper Lee actually shows up as an aggressive freckled redhead in Capote’s fictionalised memoir, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and here their friendship is represented the other way round; Capote often comes off as the bully of the two. Nonetheless, it’s clear they had a lot of affection for each other as shown through the adventures Harper Lee describes. In the years that To Kill a Mockingbird covers, the kids find themselves wrapped up in the mystery of their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, who hasn’t left his house in over a decade. They witness such dramatic incidents as the great fire that destroys Ms. Maudie’s house. And, more notably, they become so embroiled in the trial of Tom Robinson that they even help to prevent an attempted lynching of the man. Yet, however dramatic things get, the book always maintains the hazy feeling of a long summer’s day as the kids indulge in imaginary games and ponder over the strange habits of the adults in their lives. Throughout it all, Lee continuously conjures up a sense of nostalgia by describing the kind of silly childhood events we can all relate to, like, for example, when Scout falls asleep inside her costume during the school play and misses her only line. It’s a hilarious moment that you practically experience from inside the costume, but it also comes off like the kind of anecdote that can take on mythic status in any family, which is fitting, given one of the main themes of the book.
History underscores everything that happens in To Kill A Mockingbird.
Family lineages, among the white residents of Maycomb, are at a premium, in part because they live in a time of such poverty. Strictly speaking, since these families have lost much of their wealth, they have nothing to bolster their sense of superiority other than the knowledge that they come from good stock. In this way, it’s generally accepted in town that a family like Scout’s, a respectable suburban family unit, are of a much better grade than the Ewells, a low rent, drunken bunch who aren’t even expected to send their children to school. To be sure, the characteristics of each family aren’t just an idea based on their current behaviour. As Scout knows, it’s fully expected that any child of the Ewell’s always has and always will grow up to be an illiterate brute, and by the same logic, that the African American population will never be able to attain the kind of civility that her people believe themselves to embody. Now, while most of the town’s residents think that this is simply the natural order of things, they also keep a keen eye on each other to ensure that the order does not begin to change, which is about as good an indicator that there’s nothing natural about it as you’ll ever get. For Scout, this means she can only mull over how the adults around her can turn a blind eye to the blatant contradictions in their beliefs and even that she has to struggle against moments of indoctrination when she’s told in so many ways that the injustices she sees can be explained away with, ‘That’s just how things are.’ Even so, with her indomitable spirit, as well as the extraordinary example her father provides, she’s able to fight against such nonsense and take centre stage in a novel that inspires the reader to do the same.
So, in light of this kind of idealism being such an important aspect of the work, it was always going to be curious that it’s so lacking from To Kill a Mockingbird’s much touted sequel. Though I think most people would agree that this is only one among many of Go Set a Watchman’s problems.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
If you’re not already familiar with the case of Go Set a Watchman, it’s difficult to do justice to the hurricane of confusion that surrounded its publication. As already mentioned, the manuscript had been sitting in Lee’s safety deposit box for a number of years before a family lawyer fished it out and it was sold to HarperCollins. When HarperCollins announced the existence of the book in February of 2015 there was some suspicion surrounding the announcement, in part because Lee’s own statement left some doubt as to the nature of what was being sold:
‘In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.’
The quote, which was included in the original press release for the book, seemed to call into question just how appropriate it was for the president to frame the thing as a sequel, however tepidly he applied the term, and because the book wouldn’t actually come out until July of that year, there was plenty of time for it to build up equal measures of excitement and concern – though I think it’s fair to say nobody could have predicted the flaming bag of rubbish was about to land.
To give you an idea of what readers went through when they finally picked up a copy, I’ll do my best to sum up the experience in a linear fashion.
Go Set a Watchman is set in the same town as To Kill a Mockingbird. It does indeed feature the return of our favourite characters, and in fact, is mostly told from the perspective of Scout, although in this story she’s now a fully grown woman considering the possibility of marriage. Harper Lee’s voice is immediately recognisable in the prose. But the third-person narrative often comes off as a little awkward as it switches from Scout’s limited perspective to an omniscient one then back into any other characters head on a paragraph by paragraph basis. Clumsy writing notwithstanding, at first glance you can see why the publisher tried to get away with framing it as a sequel. At the start, it reads like the follow up to the much beloved classic wherein Scout returns home and reminiscences about the long past days of her childhood. However, as you get a little deeper into the story, it begins to feel more like the flashback episode of a TV show. Character descriptions, childhood episodes and other passages are word for word copies of what had already been told in To Kill a Mockingbird. If you were to give Go Set a Watchman the benefit of the doubt, you might have allowed that these repetitions were just wrinkles that Harper Lee didn’t bother to iron out since she never expected the thing to be published. But as the repeated passages continue to pop up, it would have dawned on you that this isn’t the unedited text for a sequel, it might actually be an original draft for To Kill a Mockingbird, an early work-in-progress of that famous novel which was just never meant to be seen. According to some, Harper Lee originally submitted two manuscripts for consideration. Go Set a Watchman, and the other, titled, Atticus, which was supposedly the actual first version of To Kill a Mockingbird. However, there’s undoubtedly an enormous crossover between the two. By all accounts, the copy and paste function wasn’t available on typewriters back then, but looking at these books you’d really begin to wonder. At any rate, after a certain point of reading Watchman, any good will you might have had towards the publisher probably dissipated, though if you’re anything like me your curiosity about the early iteration of such an extraordinary piece of work would have kept you trudging along even as more and more underdeveloped plot threads presented themselves like so many miscarriages of what you’d come to love.
Jem, we’re told in this book, has actually died. Calpurnia, their once proud housemaid is now a silent and embittered woman. Scout herself maintains some of her endearing stubbornness, at least so far as we’re told, but in any arguments where she attempts to stand-up for herself she’s usually just instructed to sit back down. And, most disturbingly of all, Atticus Finch, that gentleman of the progressive South, is just one step away from asking Calpurnia to stitch him up some white robes and a pointed hood. All of these elements were obviously pretty earth-shattering for anybody who wanted to return to the sultry world of To Kill a Mockingbird. It was like having to sit through a warped interpretation of the same story as told by one of the witnesses of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. In that film, numerous testimonies are given in regards to a murder. Each of them are credible, so in the end it’s mostly left up to the audience to decide what they believe, though there are some hints as to which account is true. And while it might become evident that some of the witnesses in Rashoman are liars, you can at least credit them with being able to invoke some urgency in what was being conveyed.
Meanwhile, in Go Set a Watchman, you could say that the story, such as it is, begins when Scout learns that her prospective fiance is racist. This is especially unsettling to Scout, because her beau is working for her father, Atticus, who as it turns out, is not only aware of the man’s intolerant beliefs, but is also attending council meetings with him where the local people strategize ways to maintain racial segregation. On a superficial level, the book eventually builds up to a confrontation between Scout and her father on this matter, but in reality, there’s little to no rising tension achieved. To put it bluntly, for most of the pages Scout just avoids him altogether until Harper Lee apparently decides she’s reached a high enough word count to end the tale. More distressingly though, when Scout does confront Atticus, he rises to the occasion by giving her a high-minded speech about the American constitution and how the issue of races should not be decided by the federal government. As far as he’s concerned, attending these town hall meetings is just a way of making sure his family and others like them will be able to continue to live without having to suffer from too much government overreach; that is to say, respectful, neighbourly, and kind hearted, just so long as everybody has the same colour skin. Now, I’m clearly not American. I’m a bit of an outsider to the issue, albeit one who sits closer to Atticus prime’s egalitarian views, but to me it seems extremely ignorant for this elderly form of Atticus to believe that the constitutional rights he wants to preserve can be separated from the racial problems that surround it. I don’t think anybody would take issue with the fact that he wants the state of Alabama’s legal rights to remain unchallenged, but in this case it’s plain to see that the only way he can ensure that is by holding back equal rights for others. At the very least, it’s disappointing that such a well known role-model of intelligence and integrity could be blind to so blatant a problem. But, at worst, as he lectures Scout, Atticus is engaging in the most despicable kind of political doublethink, whereby he’s willfully trying to fool himself and those around him into believing that what he’s hoping to achieve is free of any moral cost. Still, regardless of how disappointing it is to see old Atticus speak in such a manipulative way, it’s all the more disheartening that the once indomitable Scout is practically incapable of pointing out any holes in his logic, and, to some extent, even finds herself agreeing with what he has to say.
In contrast to this, it’s worth noting that not everybody sees the book in the same way I do, in that, whether they’re outraged by Atticus’ poisonous rhetoric or not, they seem to enjoy a couple of redeeming qualities that Go Set a Watchman might have.
For starters, the book has actually maintained a fairly healthy three and a half stars on Goodreads and of the initial reception it received, I see that the Wikipedia page for it highlights a writer for The Guardian who voiced the opinion that much of the backlash to the book came from the controversy that led up its release and that in her view, the story is a fairly honest account of alienation experienced as a woman in the South. When put like this, I can certainly see what Harper Lee might have been aiming for when she wrote the thing, but even if I leave aside the surprise at seeing some of the most charming literary characters ever written acting in such an ignorant manner, I don’t think the book accomplishes what it was trying to do.
Yes, Scout experiences a serious amount of disillusionment when she returns to the South and is forced to face the intolerance that now characterises her hometown. As a young woman it’s fully expected for her to accept the predominant male viewpoint, which in this case is about as racist as they come, lest she be alienated from everyone she loves. If you were being nice you could say that it kind of works like a Southern version of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. In that other book, the young protagonist is attempting to flee from the realities of life, but ultimately takes a leap into adulthood when he chooses to accept his responsibilities instead. Here the supposed leap into maturity comes when Scout accepts that she can’t change Atticus’ view of segregation. You might expect that the reader is supposed to take this as a tragedy, but it does require giving Harper Lee the benefit of the doubt in regards to thinking that’s how she wanted it to be read. In truth, it seems more like she wants us to learn that we too would be immature to think the South could change. It’s certainly very sad that Scout has to concede that not everybody shares her idealistic views, but in the end that’s all they’re represented as; the underdeveloped notions of a girl who on this occasion has nothing else to say when she’s patted on the head and told they don’t expect her to understand.
In general, I’d say it’s pretty disquieting to think that if a person were sitting on the fence on the issue of racial segregation, the book would more easily win them over to Atticus’ argument than to Scouts. But to top it all off, there still remains some controversy over whether Harper Lee was in her right mind when she agreed to have the book published in 2015.
As all of the fallout from the release Go Set of Watchman became a bit of a garbage fire, it was implied that Harper Lee had grown so old and detached from the literary world that she had little idea of what was going on. On the one hand, a friend who visited her annually over the course of countless years insisted that she, “Had all her marbles.” However, on the other hand, another friend and neighbour described things much more pessimistically when she pointed out that Lee’s sister, Alice, had always acted as a guardian for Lee’s work and noted that the so-called discovery of this second novel was suspiciously timed in that it occurred a mere two and a half months after Alice died. Further to this, she went on to say that Harper Lee was blind, couldn’t hear a thing, and would have signed anything that was presented by anyone in whom she placed a degree of confidence. Giving further credence to this claim was a statement from the original executive editor for To Kill a Mockingbird, who said there was just never any intention on the part of Harper Lee to publish Go Set a Watchman. Overall, the allegations got so heated that the state of Alabama undertook an investigation into whether the publication of Go Set a Watchman amounted to elder abuse, and though their investigation judged that the claims were unfounded, with Harper Lee’s death in 2016, the matter has left a pretty bad taste in the mouth of many fans.
Of course, that isn’t to say I don’t think there isn’t a silver lining in all of this. For starters, I think it demonstrates the incredible amount of growth Harper Lee experienced when writing these two versions of the novel. And, if nothing else, Go Set a Watchman grants an extraordinary amount of insight into what made To Kill a Mockingbird such a classic, just by showing a complete lack of the most important qualities that made it so pleasurable to read in the first place. Namely, pacing, structure and a clear moral stance.
How a Watchman Became the Mockingbird
When Harper Lee moved to New York in the 1950’s, she befriended a wealthy Southern couple who clearly noticed some of her talent, because when the couple received a substantial windfall from the success of the husband’s musical show, they decided to give the entire sum of it to Lee. The money, they said, was enough for her to take a year off her job as an airline reservationist so she could concentrate on writing instead. Around the same time, Lee had also visited the publisher J. B. Lippincott & Co. to discuss a sample of what she’d been doing. Amazingly, the publisher saw enough of a spark in the samples provided that they decided to work directly with her to prepare a novel for publication over the course of two years. It’s fair to say there was a lot of luck in all of these happenings. I myself have yet to meet a wealthy couple who’ll take it upon themselves to fund my projects for a year and I’m pretty sure if I managed to snag a meeting in a publisher’s office I’m sure it would only be to interview for a position in their janitorial department. Nevertheless, none of this takes away from the fact that in both instances it was obviously Harper Lee’s exceptional gift for writing that secured her the opportunities. That said, up until recently, we only had a vague idea of what improvements she made in the time her publisher allowed. Of what we did know, it was said Lee had a strong sense of character from the outset but it was remarked that her work read more like a collection of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel. As Lee herself famously stated, what surprised her about a lot of American fiction was an unwillingness on the part of the writers to sit down and work a good idea into a gem of an idea. The comment is relatable to any editor, I’m sure, but it was always a little bit abstract, mostly because there were no actual examples given from her unpolished first draft. That is, until the release of Go Set a Watchman, the book that turned out to be one the original manuscripts she submitted to J.B. Lippincott for review.
As already outlined, Lee’s early writing shows a flare for character, but surely does suffer from a lack of consideration to how the story was being told, something which is all the more glaring when compared to the final iteration.
From the very first page of To Kill a Mockingbird, the entire structure of the story is established when we’re told that this is to be the tale of how Scout’s brother broke his arm. To put that in context, Jem breaking his arm turns out to be the penultimate event of Mockingbird, an incident that bookends the novel and puts the innocence at the start of the story into contrast with the hardwon lessons at the end. Furthermore, the broken arm is related to all of the issues with which the residents of Maycomb have to grapple and even ties into the children’s obsession with their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, in that, it’s the fallout from Tom Robinson’s trial that leads to the attack on Jem and their previous interest in their neighbour that leads to the mysterious man saving their lives. It was probably put best when the novelist James McBride said of it that:
By speaking to the specific, the story of how her brother broke his arm, she (Harper Lee) speaks to the general problem of 400 years of racism, slavery, socioeconomic classism, the courage of the working class, the isolation of the South, the identity crises of a young girl, and the coming out of a neighbourhood recluse. All that in the story of her brother, who, when he was nearly thirteen, broke his arm.
As the quote shows, it’s a powerful example of what a little time and carefully considered editing can do, but, once again it does bring to mind the question of how Harper Lee started a book about accepting the beliefs of segregationists and ended up with one that demanded some actual justice for her African American cast. The difference is so glaring that you can see how the original version was mostly received like a shameful secret that never should have been exposed rather than a long lost treasure of which the discovery should be celebrated. But I think with a little investigation and a hefty dose of optimism, there are some inspiring lessons to take from the entire affair.
Evidently, Harper Lee spent a long time working with her editor, Tay Hohoff, to transform Go Set a Watchman and the manuscript called Atticus into what would eventually become To Kill a Mockingbird. I think you can take it for granted that Hohoff would have had a lot to say about Lee’s style of writing. When you compare the early book with the final one, you could say that the difference between them is like taking a speedy journey in which you rush through a small village and only take in the view from the passenger seat window, and an actual visit to the place where you meet, argue and shake hands with just about everybody in town. But it would appear Hohoff also had some input on the moral fibre of the novel too. The journalist Jonathan Mahler states in an article for The New York Times, that by looking at the corporate records of the original publisher, you can see that there was a natural give and take between the author and editor. As recounted in the article, Hohoff herself wrote of working with Harper Lee:
“When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours. And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of controversy.”
The article goes on to point out that in this regard, Hohoff wasn’t just the woman who ordered Lee to rescue her manuscript from the street, but might also have been who inspired the about-face on race relations within the book’s themes, given that at the time she was working with Harper Lee, Hohoff herself was writing a biography on John Lovejoy Elliott, a social activist and humanist who committed his life to helping the underclass, and which ended up being published just one year before To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, if we’re to accept that Lee and Hohoff were likely discussing social justice issues in relation to her work-in-progress, I think there’s probably two scenarios that would have led to the final draft.
In the first, you can characterise Lee as a bit of a glib, manipulative young woman who was willing to do anything to get published. This means she would have gone to pretty extreme lengths to obscure the troubling views on segregation in order to make her story more palatable for a progressive audience. In such a case, I think that would leave us with a pretty depressing backstory for an otherwise admirable novel.
In the second, Lee would have developed a respectful and discursive relationship with her editor and allowed her original views on a contentious subject to be challenged. Further to this, in the two years she continued to hash things out with Hohoff she would have developed a slightly harder line against the arguments in favour of segregation. In this way, Lee would have worked assiduously to represent the southern culture she knew in as honest a way as possible, while also pointing towards the need for change.
Of the two possibilities, I don’t really see myself considering the first in any serious manner, mostly just because To Kill a Mockingbird turned out to be so good. Frankly speaking, it’s difficult to imagine that such a lovingly crafted novel, so well considered in every single word and so plain spoken in its values, could have been created by somebody just trying to cash in on the more liberal views of her newly acquainted publishing industry friends. There’s so many outright injustices to see in To Kill a Mockingbird, so many characters stubbornly holding onto antiquated beliefs, it seems to me that Harper Lee arrived on the doorstep of her publisher like Scout at the end of Go Set a Watchman, albeit a variation with one more chapter in her story to come; that is to say, she was a woman who was against the idea of segregation though didn’t see how the culture of the South could be changed, but who then actually found a stronger argument to assert that it would be necessary either way.
You know, I actually made a video essay about Harper Lee’s friend, Truman Capote, in which I mentioned the eight-thousand pages of notes he claimed to have taken for his true-crime novel, In Cold Blood. What I neglected to highlight in that video was just how much of a help Harper Lee was to him in that regard. As the story goes, Capote had a difficult time gaining the trust of the local people he wanted to interview and it was Harper Lee who was able to help bridge the divide, talk to many of the townsfolk, and even provide notes on the numerous individuals that would turn up as subjects in the book itself. I’m stumbling into the realm of ridiculous speculation here, but I don’t think anybody who can deliver the kind of astute observations Lee showcased in both her own work and for her friend could be accomplished by a more self-serving mind. Sure, there are sociopathic types in the world who understand people well enough to manipulate them into getting what they need, but I don’t think those types could write up such nuanced profiles on the people they aimed to bleed dry. Really, it’s possible that any evidence you want in regards to Harper Lee’s character can come from her ability to see what was good at a person’s core. Admittedly, I am overlooking the fact that Capote himself had a notable talent for character in his writing and he himself has been accused of being a sociopath on occasion or two. But I tend to balance that out by acknowledging the innumerable glowing references Harper Lee received from a neverending list of family and friends, compared to the pretty troubling remarks Truman Capote’s acquaintances made over the years. So anyways, what makes the entire affair inspiring to me is that a woman who our own time would be shunned for expressing any tolerance for the kind of ideas described in her original novel, actually managed to develop the story to the point that it became the ABC’s of social justice for anybody who never saw what life like over on Tom Robinson’s side of the line. It’s just an incredible testament to how rational conversation can lead to change.
But, regardless of whatever lofty speech I can give on the topic, I guess it’ll probably always come down to the question of whether Go Set a Watchman is worth a read. Well, if you’re a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird and you’re interested in writing, I think you’ll agree that there’s a big enough difference between me describing the potential genius and underdeveloped craft that its predecessor shows and experiencing the whole affair for yourself that certainly makes it worth a go. I’m not sure if we’ll ever know all the ins and outs that led to its publication, but I think it’s clear that the publishers actions were pretty misguided, so I’ll supplement my recommendation with a request that if you do decide to track down a print of the book, make sure you prevent any money going into their corporate accounts as best you can. Find a secondhand copy, borrow a friend’s, or check it out of a library, so long as they don’t have to order it in. More importantly though, I’ll wrap all of this up with a note about how I hate to see conversations like this get reduced to a series of bullet points. As far as I know, To Kill a Mockingbird is still a popular book to be assigned in schools, and I can well imagine some cheeky little gurrier Googling the topic only to declare that, ‘Jem dies and Atticus is a racist.’ In such an instance, I would hope the long suffering English teachers of the world could muster up some patience and actually engage with the kids on the topic rather than just telling them that Go Set a Watchman should be burned. There’s a lot to say about how the book evolved into a classic once it was dug out of the snow and a pretty deep conversation to be had on how a person’s views might be changed. By most accounts, whether you think of it as a clumsy first draft or a misguided sequel, it probably shouldn’t have been released like it was. But now that it’s here, it’s an incredible literary artifact. A proto form of To Kill a Mockingbird. A study companion for one of the greatest books of all time.
Lullabye by Density & Time
Fresh Fallen Snow by Chris Haugen
Glacier by Chris Haugen
That Kid in Fourth Grade Who Really Likes the Denver Broncos by Chris Zabriskie
Always Hopeful by Silent Partner
The Long Walk Home (1990)
Forrest Gump (1994)
The Notebook (2004)
Mississippi Burning (1998)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
My Girl (1991)
The Tree of Life (2011)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
On the Road (2012)
The Master (2012)