I belong to a book club founded by Southern women who might possibly be the biggest fans of Harper Lee: the Mockingbirds. They so love this iconic author that I interrupted a shoot in Alabama to send them these pictures from her hometown of Monroeville.
So I couldn’t have picked a worse time to be moving back to Washington DC and missing the meeting where we examine “Go Set a Watchman.” We’ve been procrastinating on scheduling this particular meeting for months in part because of spoilers that this book would devastate readers who have grown up treasuring “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Not me. I had to read Mockingbird in high school in Oregon and it didn’t have the same cultural resonance where there were only three African Americans in the entire student body. If anything, I categorized it as another book that romanticized and elevated white people to savior roles involving African Americans. It didn’t correlate to the race reality I knew, especially having grown up in Apartheid South Africa.
So the shocking revelation in GSAW that Jean Louise’s father Atticus was actually a racist didn’t ruin the book for me. It was easier to believe Atticus’s “change” of character than Scout’s. He was a man of his time all along. It was his noble belief in the law that she, and we, misinterpreted as selfless empathy. If Jean Louise really were the 26-yr-old, holier-than-thou character the author asks us to believe, she’d never have forgiven her father’s change of character in one afternoon.
Her quick forgiveness feels fake, unnatural to the sassy, headstrong character that I enjoyed meeting at the start of the book. Same goes for her uncle. When he tells Scout that it is precisely when those she loves are wrong that they need her the most, I found myself arguing with him. On the surface the advice seems noble but in my experience it also rationalizes going along with the status quo.
Of course I’m not the first to find fault with these aspects of the book, or its literary shortcomings. It reads more like a stage play, full of soliloquies and asides meant to tell, rather than show, what we are meant to understand. But on this front, I forgive Harper Lee.
“Watchman” was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957. I would argue that any novel published, without a give-and-take editing process, 58 years after submission would be equally awkward. It was, essentially, a first draft. Here’s what others have written about the troubling chronology:
“The novel was finished in 1957 and purchased by the J.B. Lippincott Company. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, although impressed with elements of the story, saying that “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” thought it was by no means ready for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”
I can only relate it to how I would have felt if someone published the first draft of either of my memoirs. The Other Mother was so angst-filled and journalistic that my editor made me burn it down and start over. The initial versions of the book I’ve just finished are similarly awful – I tried to fill it with my sense of injustice against Latin America instead of my own experiences.
So I’m left with the irony of forgiveness. I’m willing to forgive Harper Lee and the character she wanted us to admire in To Kill a Mockingbird but not the character she asks us to admire in Go Set A Watchman.