Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
As a writer myself, I was curios about Harper Lee's process and read Watchman as a first draft. This "new" book is unevenly paced, anecdotal, preachy and slow to launch. The first 100 pages are mostly character sketches, but it was still a pleasure to meet Scout as a 26-year-old woman. She continues to be a delightful, quirky character. In the early chapters Scout is torn between looking after her ailing father and marrying her childhood sweetheart in Alabama versus going back to her independent life in New York City.
I loved this line about her small town: "If you did not want much, there was plenty."
The central themes of racism and loss of innocence didn't launch until page 101 of this 278 page novel. In a narrative jolt, Scout makes a shocking discovery that destroys her trust in the men she loves and rocks all her beliefs. Atticus the shining knight is tarnished nearly beyond recognition. Mockingbird seems like a fairy tale by comparison.
Although painful to accept, the Watchman is more historically accurate. The racist opponents to segregation in the South included well educated men, like the fictional Atticus, who otherwise seemed to be prime examples of moral integrity. Atticus's racism is disguised as "Jeffersonian Democracy" and benevolent paternalism. Scout, who was raised "color blind" by a black maid and a white father, believes in equal rights for all. The narrative suspense rests on this feud of ideology in one family. I stayed up until dawn finishing the Watchman. This nauseating debate still feels relevant. Two weeks ago the Confederate flag was still flying at South Carolina's capitol. Racial inequities persist.
The joy of reading Watchman came from uncovering the genesis of Mockingbird. The famous climatic Mockingbird trial is summarized as backstory, and there are delightful childhood flashbacks. I can imagine the sage editor, mining these rough gems and helping the author polish them into a masterpiece. It encouraged me as a writer to see that even Harper Lee struggled in her first draft. There are so many tales than can be told. Genius is in finding the heart of the story.