Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird: So Much Mystery, Still More Truth

(Okay, they’re technically not mystery novels, but there’s so much mystery around them and so much I want to say, so I’m posting here.)

I don’t remember when I first met Scout. My guess it was in English 9, or maybe English 10. I think it was Mr. Iten who introduced us. However we met, she instantly became part of the young women who so influenced my life. She was right there with Laura, Pippi, Anne (with an E), Harriet, Rebecca, and Nancy. She had spunk. She was a fellow tomboy. She said what she wanted, and she allowed me to enter a world I never would have seen (at least as a 14 year old in a small, Midwest town) otherwise. She transported me in history and location to those places that I had only vague ideas even existed. She has forever sat on my shelves, along with the other influential young women, to remind me of the power of language and what it means to enter a storyworld. She is one of my forever friends. Someone I can return to and connect with at various points in my life, learning something new each time I visit with her.

My relationship with Scout made me conflicted about Go Set A Watchman. I wanted to know what happened to Scout. And not my imagination of what happened to Scout, but what Harper Lee, who created Scout, saw happen to her. I wanted to know if the images-1spunk and sincerity and fearlessness, and love she had when she was a girl remained. But, as rumors of elder abuse, of whether or not Lee truly wanted to novel released, and what the novel meant for Mockingbird rocketed through the web, I had to think about what reading Watchman would mean to me.

I waited a few weeks. I didn’t want to add to the frenzy. I’d heard the rumors—Jem was dead and more shockingly, Atticus was a racist. A segregationist. People cried that we couldn’t have that done to the beloved Atticus. The lawyer who fought so hard to defend Tom Robinson. To keep him alive. But to me Atticus is Gregory Peck. It is Peck who brought him alive. For me, Mockingbird is about Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo Radley. Atticus’ story is woven into theirs as a way to understand how young people relate to the world of the elders around them. How young people make sense of the imagesmessiness of their worlds and how adults add and create a messiness that doesn’t always need to be there. And, how a father can challenge a reality that is based on fear of the unknown.

But I decided I had to read Watchman. I teach future high school teachers and each semester, when I talk about books and literature and what is read in high schools, I say that the one book that everyone has read in high school, the one constant in the United States public school system, is To Kill a Mockingbird. I tell them they must read it. And, I’ve assigned it for the fall, so realizing that it will come up, I decided to bite the bullet and read the text.

gsw-audio-coverHaving been called at times part of a trilogy of novels, it is now widely asserted that Go Set A Watchman is actually a first draft—a rejected draft—of Mockingbird. Although many of the characters remain, there is little in the first draft that connects to the revised text. As a piece of literature, Watchman reads as a draft. There is a great deal of telling and lecture. Although many of the characters are fleshed out, it is not to the extent that we see in Mockingbird. The connection to Scout, and many of the other characters, comes through in the glimpses into their past. It is not the present action that drew me in as a reader. Instead, it was how we learned of Scout and Maycomb in her remembrances of the past. And, since not much “occurred” in the novel, it was the past that I connected to as a reader. I think even without Mockingbird, I would have wanted to enter the past and not stay in the present-day Maycomb that Harper presents in Watchman.

As a draft, Watchman novel makes sense. The story of Mockingbird is there. It just needed an editor to bring it out. As we progress through this mystery of Mockingbird and Watchman, I’m positive the relationship between Lee and her editor, Ms. Hohoff, will become more widely discussed. As the New York Times addressed in their piece, The Invisible Hand Behind Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the strength of that relationship and who Hofoff was to Lee melded and molded both Lee and Mockingbird into it’s final form.

But, the fact that it’s a draft, and that there is a tangible relationship between this draft, it’s author, and her editor, makes it wonderful for me. In teaching writing, students always talk about being able to write something in one draft. They don’t want to change their work. They don’t want to change their narrative—whether it be fiction or not. They struggle with the work it takes to be a writer. By examining Watchman and finding the threads of Mockingbird within, it is a solid way to teach narrative and revision. Watchman shows much of Mockingbird and Mockingbird shows how transforming Watchman to a different time in history, to a different focus, making Atticus a different character (and still very much the same) and focusing on a relationship among children and a different outcast creates a narrative that was needed in a time of Emmitt Till and the start of a movement that would change The South, and the United States. A movement of youth fighting for their rights and freedoms. It also shows how changes in drafts, characters, and the choice of storyline can make a text mean something beyond it’s time period and create discussion and connection for decades.

Plus, not to be cynical, but I was always jealous of how Harper Lee could write such a beautifully stunning first book and then be done. It was one of those things that people always dream of doing and she did it. Watchman let’s us see how she did it. It lets us enter the writer’s world and see her connection to Jean Louis and her town. For this, I am forever grateful.

imgres-1But, is also important for it’s connection to how we talk about race. And, it lets us see how Lee wanted to address issues of race in both the North and the South in the late 1950s. In Watchman, I feel as though she wanted to let liberal White America in on a little secret. She wanted to make sure that the complications of liberalism in the South were made visible. She wanted to show how everything was not always what it seemed. She wanted to make visible the fear that was truly and deeply part of the way of life of those in her fictional Maycomb County, as well as the real Monroeville in which she lived.

The frustration people have with Atticus being human, and racist, is one I struggle with. I appreciate the “new” Atticus. An Atticus that is much more realistic of whiteness, not only in the South in the 1950s, but today. The fear that the world will change, that it will not be what it has always been, that we (read white people) will not have the same power and privilege that we’ve always had is one that continues today. With the fears over #blacklivesmatter, daily deaths of black and brown bodies, and changes in government and politics is present each and every day, it is hard to imagine that the Mockingbird Atticus was truly the man we (white America) has made him out to be. Instead, the Atticus in Watchman is the one I want us to talk about.

Forget about how well or how poorly you believe the novel to be written. Remember, it’s a draft. It is as if we spend the majority of our time talking about the fact that the novel is not written as well as Mockingbird, then we don’t have to spend our time talking about Atticus, and racism, and white, liberal racism. We don’t have to address the fact that just because the law says something it makes it so. Watchman makes the argument that it’s okay for Atticus to be racist because he will also follow the law. He will take care of everyone and let everyone be heard. You don’t have to agree, you just have to listen. And, at least for Uncle John, that makes him more understanding than Jean Louis. Even if Maycomb needs more Jean Louis’, they need to learn how to be more like Atticus and listen. Jean Louis is the Bigot, not Atticus. What would an in-depth conversation about this aspect of the novel look like? What does it mean to be white and well-meaning, but still racist? Still fearful of the changes coming? What does it mean to be a Hank and to “sometimes do things you don’t want to do”? How does being complacent figure not only into the South of the Watchman and Maycomb county, but into our lives today?

As a white person, what would it mean if I would have boycotted Watchman because I didn’t want to ruin the image of Atticus, the one Gregory Peck flawlessly presented, I have had all these years? What would it mean if I didn’t support Scout, my faithful companion, as she attempted to figure out what it means to deal with racism and complexities and sticky subjects? I believe that if I would have just sat back and ignored Watchmen, arguing that it really wasn’t Mockingbird and it would ruin Mockingbird for me, that I would be ignoring my privilege. I would choose to not see what is actually there, the way that White folks in the United States (myself included) so often do. For that reason, I ask us to read Watchman and not discuss the greatness or failures of the text, but the uncomfortableness that happens when we see the reality of what it means to live in a society where so much is defined by hatred and fear.



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