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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Have We Left Macomb County Yet?

For thus hath the Lord said unto me,
Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
-      Isaiah 21:6

Go Set a Watchman,
by Harper Lee
NY: HarperCollins, 2015
Hardcover, $27.99

We’re back in Macomb County, Alabama. It is the 1950s. Jean Louise, formerly the child called “Scout,” now 26 years old and visiting from New York City, thinks she has outgrown her hometown -- but she still wrestles with the idea of marrying Hank, who would never live anywhere else. Her beloved  brother Jem is dead. Jean Louise doesn’t fit in with the women of the town, whatever their age. The last straw is discovering that her father-hero-god, Atticus, has feet of clay. Atticus is a flawed human being. But then, Scout herself is not perfect....

Everyone in America knows the story behind this book. We have all read in the newspapers and online and heard on the radio (and online) that Go Set a Watchman was Harper Lee’s first version of the novel that eventually became the award-winning classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Her editor in the 1950s was most taken with the flashbacks to childhood in the manuscript and suggested that the author rewrite the story, setting it entirely in that era, telling it all from the child's point of view. Perhaps it was the image of Scout and Jem in the balcony of the courthouse, watching their father from the “colored” section, that inspired the editor’s suggestions.

Did the editor also urge Lee to make Atticus a more sympathetic character? In the rewrite, was it Harper Lee’s idea or the editor’s to have Atticus lose the case in which he defended the black man from a rape charge, rather than winning it, as in GSAW’s backstory? Why the change? For the sake of realism or because the novel’s readership would find the TKAM outcome more acceptable?

Because I know so many writers and hear so many of their stories of revising and rewriting and responding to suggestions from agents and editors, and because I have been writing a first novel myself this year (writing, revising, beginning again after scrapping earlier chapters), I am fascinated by Harper Lee’s two novels – the distance between them, the changes, the different shapes, and the editor’s input. When I started reading the first pages of GSAW, I couldn’t help reading each word and sentence very consciously, remarking every choice of word and arrangement of words, but gradually the story took me over, and I let it carry me like a river.

When Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia and realizes for the first time what her aunt meant by insisting that Calpurnia was like family but not family, when Calpurnia does not respond to Jean Louise as if to her little child, Scout, a crack appears in Jean Louise’s picture of the way she grew up. I could not help thinking in this section of a far lesser novel, The Help. Love across such differences in situation could only be ambivalent. Soon Jean Louise realizes a similar ambivalence in her love for Hank and even for her father. She realizes her separateness. What she must learn before the end of the book is that separateness does not contradict her belonging to a community and that she does not have to agree with every opinion held by another individual to love that person.

If Harper Lee’s publisher had, years ago, given us instead TKAM instead of GSAW, would we ever have had the former at all? And what would have been the fate of GSAW if published in 1960 instead of TKAM? It strikes me that the American reading public in 1960 can be seen as Jean Louise at 26 years old in GSAW: on the cusp of growing up, starting in that direction, but with a long way to go.

If Harper Lee had published this newly released novel thirty years ago, might she have gone on to write a third by now, one in which Jean Louise reaches a wise maturity and works with Calpurnia to bring about a New South? We will never know, and there will not be a third Harper Lee Novel. But when I reached the last page of Go Set a Watchman, I was very glad to have been able to read it. I expected to find it interesting only because I was curious, for reasons mentioned above, and found, in addition, a novel satisfying to read in itself. That was a complete surprise, given most of the reviews.

What I wonder now is, where is our country in 2015, fifty-five years after the original publication of Harper Lee’s beloved classic? How many Americans are able to continue a conversation across differences, political as well as racial and religious? Do we run away from those whose opinions we find distasteful and repulsive, refusing to have anything to do with them, seeing the world as Us vs. Them?

After reading the new release, do we think Jean Louise will grow up? At the end of the story, we have hopes that she will, but the larger question probably is, will we? And where are we today, relative to where we were in 1960? What do you think?

1 comment:

Karen Casebeer said...

I loved the questions you raised about the two books. And also where we are in 2015. In THINKING about it, I was sure we would have better resolved diversity issues, such as race, by now. But, unfortunately, our actions show we still have much left to learn. I hadn't thought I'd read the new book, but you make me want to. Thanks!