Last week, like book-lovers around the world, I read Go Set a Watchman, the newly released manuscript by Harper Lee. Then I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee’s beloved novel released in 1960.
Because I had already seen some reviews and articles about the two books, I wasn’t surprised to find that Watchman was a bit of a mess. If I had not been determined to read the book, I doubt I would have read past the first 50 pages, which are confusing and—frankly—dull. The pace picks up a bit in the middle of the book, but the last several chapters are shrill and harsh, filled with long monologues and screeching arguments. Point of view shifts awkwardly and unexpectedly throughout the book; the dialogue is often stilted, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is speaking.
Holes in the narrative nagged at me (what does Jean Louise do in New York City for 50 weeks a year?); odd plot twists bewildered me (why in the world does Uncle Jack bring up Scout’s mother in the closing pages?); and I put the book down without feeling much affection for anyone in the novel. By that point, I was mostly irritated by Jean Louise, the book’s main character and sort-of narrator (did I mention the book had point-of-view problems?).
The day after I finished Watchman, I picked up To Kill a Mockingbird, and I was immediately engrossed—even though I’ve read the book at least three times before. Every word seems perfect; every scene, every anecdote, every line of dialogue breathes life into the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, and its inhabitants. Once again, I found myself marveling at the brilliance of the interwoven stories of Scout and her father and brother and neighbors.
Making the Mockingbird Sing
I couldn’t help but read both books with an editor’s eye, trying to imagine what role Harper Lee’s original editor played in transforming Watchman into Mockingbird. I’ve devoured stories from a variety of sources that delve into this issue; one of the most fascinating is a Washington Post story by Neely Tucker that provides remarkable details of the interactions between Lee and her literary agents and editor.
According to Tucker and several others, Lee apparently spent more than two years revising the Watchman manuscript while working with editor Tay Hohoff at Lippincott. Reading the two books together provides a remarkable glimpse into the writing/editing process. Some passages in Mockingbird are direct replicas from Watchman, but only a few. Most Mockingbird characters are original to that book, as is most of the action, and the outcome of the Tom Robinson trial.
Since Watchman’s release, I’ve read and heard people asking questions about Lee’s original ideas and whether Hohoff “stifled” her more radical social messages or pushed Lee into an untrue portrayal of Atticus. After reading Watchman, a friend who teaches Mockingbird every year to high school freshmen told me she had started to wonder how much of that book was actually from Lee–could Hohoff have been more ghostwriter than editor?
An Editorial Boost
That’s not the way I see it, though. Based on my editorial experience, I’m pretty sure Hohoff served as a mentor rather than a puppet master. I’ve seen this process up close and personally worked with authors as they rewrote and revised and fine tuned until their final product bore only a slight resemblance to their first draft.
But that doesn’t mean I forced changes on anyone. As an editor, I don’t tell authors what to write—I just ask them what they want to write. Sometimes, the questions are as basic as “Who do you want to read this?” or “Why are you writing this?” When an author can answer those questions clearly, then we discuss how their efforts thus far have succeeded or failed and how they can move forward.
In a recent nonfiction manuscript, I thought the author’s most important message to intended readers was lurking in Chapter 16. When I suggested that Chapter 16 become Chapter 1 and that the rest of the information be restructured to flow from that point, the author enthusiastically agreed. The final product looks little like the author’s manuscript that she originally submitted to the publisher. But it is unquestionably the author’s work, the author’s ideas, the author’s creation. We just worked together to make sure the book would be better positioned to accomplish its intended mission.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m in no way trying to compare that particular manuscript to Watchman or myself to Harper Lee’s editor—I rarely even edit fiction. I’m just trying to say that I do see how something like Watchman could undergo such drastic changes—and still be Lee’s creation and Lee’s message and fulfill the purpose she had in mind. I also see how an excellent editor could help her move from the muddled mess of Watchman to the masterpiece of Mockingbird without muffling her original intended message.
Telling the Story
True, Mockingbird doesn’t push as far into the territory of racial justice as Watchman does. Scout doesn’t cry out for desegregation or stand up to her father in the way that Jean Louise does. But Mockingbird has power that is sorely lacking in Watchman, and it’s been read by millions of people who would never have made it through Watchman. In fact, if Watchman had been released in the late 1950s, I think it’s safe to say that most readers would have been more sympathetic to Atticus than to Jean Louise.
But I’m convinced Hohoff helped Lee refine her manuscript by asking what she most wanted to accomplish—and then helping her create a book that delivered her primary message in power and grace.
On page 188 of Watchman, in a conversation with the grown-up but almost hysterical Jean Louise, Uncle Jack mutters, “Oh dear. Oh dear me, yes. The novel must tell a story.” I can envision Lee’s editor pointing to that line* in the original Watchman manuscript and telling the young writer her novel had failed that test. (I’ve tried finding the source of this quote, and although it’s a little murky, I’m pretty sure it originated from English novelist E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.)
Diatribe vs. Dialogue
In my mind, that line sums up the shortcomings of Watchman and the triumphs of Mockingbird. Watchman drags problems of race and class and gender onto its pages by way of long-winded, harshly worded, unproductive debates between characters. Reading the last few chapters of Watchman is like reading my Facebook newsfeed the day after a controversial Supreme Court decision is announced.
Mockingbird tells a story—several stories actually—of curious children and mysterious neighbors and life in a small town. And by the time those characters encounter hate and injustice, readers feel their outrage. In the early pages of Mockingbird, Atticus tells Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee gives her readers that gift in Mockingbird but not in Watchman.
I don’t think Harper Lee’s editor “forced” her to tone down the more radical civil rights ideas that Jean Louise spouts in Watchman. I think she helped her write a book that has set millions of readers on a path where they can find those views on their own. Self-righteous lectures and harsh rhetoric rarely open minds, but reading novels that tell stories can help readers get into someone else’s skin and see events from a new perspective.
Every year, a new crop of self-absorbed adolescents cracks open Mockingbird in their required literature classes, climb into Scout’s skin and walk around in it. And every year, they feel their hearts thumping with indignation when they see through Scout’s eyes the injustice of a system based on class and color.
The story definitely delivers a different sort of punch to young readers today than it did when it was first published in 1960. But I think it still offers many of them a chance to step out of a world that seems so safe and comfortable into one where injustice is a reality and danger can crop up in the most unexpected places.
Should You Read It?
So should you read Go Set a Watchman? Well, it depends on how devoted you are to Mockingbird. If you have never read Mockingbird or weren’t captivated by it, then don’t bother with Watchman because it’s not a very interesting book on its own merit. (If you’ve never read Mockingbird, read it now!) If you don’t already love Atticus, you won’t much care if he spouts racist ideas in Watchman because there’s nothing here to make you care much about him—or any of the other characters. You’re likely to find Jean Louise’s shrill arguments convincing only if you already agree with what she’s saying.
If you loved Mockingbird so much that you named your son Atticus and your dog Boo, then you might want to think twice about picking up Watchman. You’re likely to be disappointed to discover that Mockingbird’s characters didn’t live happily ever after; you may not much like the grown-up Jean Louise; and you won’t find any plot lines as compelling as the one surrounding Boo Radley.
But if you approach the book with more curiosity than idealism, Watchman does have some things to offer. The arguments between Jean Louise and her father and other friends and relatives provide insight into the thoughts of “good people” on both sides of the segregation issue in the 1950s. And those insights might help you understand some of the debates that still swirl around issues of race more than half a century later.
And you can also find some examples of very good writing in Watchman, especially in the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood. The baptism scene in Miss Rachel’s fish pond made me laugh out loud, and the chapter about Scout’s misery-inducing misunderstanding of the facts of life will stick with me a long time.
Reading these chapters, I understand why Hohoff suggested that Harper Lee should write the whole novel as a flashback told by the younger Scout. And after wading through all of Watchman, I am profoundly grateful that Lee took her editor’s advice.
So, what about you? Have you read the book/books? I’d love to hear your take.
An astute review, Tammy. Your comparison of the two works clearly delineates the before and after stages in the editing process. This is a classic example of the craft of developmental editing, and it makes a strong case for the importance of the DE. Maurice Crain (Harper Lee’s agent) stated unequivocally: “Most good books are ones that have been a long time maturing, with a lot of cutting and fitting and replanning done along the way. MOCKINGBIRD, for instance, was about the most replanned and rewritten book I ever had a hand in, and it turned out finally that all the labor on it was well justified, and if the Lippincott editors hadn’t been so fussy and painstaking we wouldn’t have had nearly so good a book.” Now we have the proof.
I can only hope that aspiring authors will take note. The developmental process can be long and arduous, but as you’ve demonstrated, the rewards can be profound. I fear that many self-pub authors will wonder whether securing the services of a competent DE is a worthwhile investment. It is.
Like you, I rarely get to work with fiction, but even nonfiction books “must tell a story.” I view the DE’s role as that of Socratic mentor. Questions like “Who do you want to read this?” and “Why are you writing this?” are designed to help the author find her own way to the answers. Once these riddles have been solved and the bones of the work realigned accordingly, fleshing out the story becomes a more organic exercise.
Should Watchman have been published? From an ethical perspective, I think not. But I can certainly see its value as a tool for the creative writing instructor. Having the before and after manuscripts (and by HarperCollins’s own admission, Watchman received only cursory copyediting, so it’s a pretty pristine first draft) for analysis is a rare gift. Wouldn’t it be phenomenal if somewhere in Harper Lee’s papers there lurks intermediate drafts, revealing how the process gradually unfolded? A boyo can dream, eh?
Thanks, Aden. I had never thought of myself as a Socratic mentor before, but those are definitely the questions I ask my authors. Maybe I should change my job title on my business cards!
I also agree that Watchman should not have been published — at least not with all the fanfare that has surrounded it. It makes great material for literature scholars and probably should have been released for that audience =after Lee’s death. The whole process makes me a little queasy, and I have worried whether I’m feeding the frenzy by buying the book and posting a review. On the other hand, the book is out there, whether or not I read it or write about it, and I think it is definitely good enough to start conversations about many important issues. I had a hard time keeping this overly long review focused as much as I did — I think I could have rambled off in about four or five other directions if I let myself, such as whether it should have been published, why it’s been dormant for so long, civil rights, women’s rights, the role of religion, etc., etc. It’s a fascinating sociological treatise even if it’s not much of a story. 😉
I loved your insightful and passionate response to a book the had so much potential. . . but, alas, it had no editor, and that has made all the difference. Tonight I am going to attend a dinner with my English teaching colleagues and we will discuss Go Set a Watchman. We are having a Southern potluck, to which I plan on bringing fried okra for my friends uninitiated in Southern cooking. I think you would enjoy it. Anyway, I will bring your thoughts and words with me and see what kind of literary hash we can cook up. By the way, would you be interested in coming to speak to those freshmen who have to read To Kill a Mockingbird? I’ll cook you a chicken-fried steak… Talk to you soon! 🙂
Fried okra — your colleagues are in for a treat! I am eager to hear what they think of Watchman. And I would absolutely love to talk to your freshmen about the book(s) — especially if you’re going to throw in some chicken-fried steak!
I feel that the book was great,certainly not in its own way,you’re right,without Mockingbird I would have no reason to read this nor would I want to. Yet after reading Mockingbird,then this right after(my wife bought this book so I figured now was a better than ever to read both) and those were some good weeks of reading. I just finished it and some of it took some bearing through,because yes,there are some odd perspective quirks,especially after reading Mockingbird. Although in the end they more so stick with Jean Louise which works great. Through most of it though I only pushed on,but at the end I simply loved it,the long monologues and crisis in Jean Louise and Uncle Jack setting her straight(my one wish for mockingbird is that she kept in more of him),all just brilliant to me. And maybe it’s because I’m 22 and on Jean Louise’s coat tails age-wise although am married with 2 dogs so I already had to come to my own like she does at 26,or maybe because uncle jack makes me think that I’ll talk like that when I’m his age,but something in it really just touched me,with all that’s going on these days it’s great to see the start of a revolution from someone who is still finding herself,no less the world,but is willing to stand up for it. It makes me think there is hope for this generation,which does look like Jean’s rants,all over Facebook(that line made me crack up laughing),despite all of those downfalls,that there are still just people in there,fighting for people,and justice,and that the other side isn’t simply the enemy,that they too are people.
Peter, thanks for that thoughtful comment! I hadn’t thought about how Watchman might look different to 20-somethings. It’s really interesting that you can relate so well to Jean Louise. (Sorry to be so long answering this comment. I usually get notified when I get a comment, but this one slipped right by me.)