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.