What I'm Reading (No. 37): Harper Lee edition
This month's book club selection was Go Set a Watchman. A few of us reread To Kill a Mockingbird, but I didn't, as I just read it a few years ago for the third time. Most of us enjoyed it to some degree (especially in the second half), and it didn't seem like anyone outright disliked it. That seems to be the general consensus of the book, actually. I also read a Harper Lee biography, which added a ton of helpful context to how Watchman and Mockingbird came to be. Let's get to it!
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
In the 1950s, young Harper Lee was living in New York and hard at work on her first novel. It took a while (New York is a spendy place to live), but she finally completed Go Set a Watchman. Her talent was obvious, so she quickly found a publisher. Lee’s editor, though, found a story that was more a series of connected anecdotes and lengthy dialogues than a cohesive and powerful novel. And so over the course of about three years and many drafts (along with a title change), To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960. (Then, in 2015, through some generally unsavory circumstances, the original Watchman was found and published.)
So Watchman is a first draft of what became Mockingbird, and not a sequel. However, while there are some minor plot discrepancies, the way the stories line up can indeed make it sort of function like a sequel.
And it’s one that I rather enjoyed.
*Big time spoilers ahead. I will not be reviewing in vague generalities. At this point, free to skip ahead to my review of the Harper Lee biography.*
In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch (“Scout”) is now 26 years old, and visiting hometown Maycomb, Alabama from New York (where she now lives). Hank Clinton enters the picture as a love interest, and Atticus is a cantankerous 70-year-old man. It takes about 100 pages (too long, in my opinion — that first part was rather slow), but Jean Louise eventually stumbles upon a racist pamphlet of her father’s, and drops into a citizen's council meeting (sort of like a "nice" version of the KKK) in which she finds Hank and Atticus in attendance.
She confronts them both, and receives unsatisfactory, racist answers from both. And her world is turned upside down because of it.
As is anyone’s when they discover that their parents are flawed, entirely human creatures. It’s something that many people experiences in their teens or twenties. And it can be jarring — as it was for Scout.
From there, the book is basically dialogue between Jean Louise and various family members about this “new” Atticus, who isn’t really new at all. He was simply hidden underneath the veneer of Scout’s previously child-like eyes for her father.
In Mockingbird, Scout is so young and innocent that she can’t see her town or even her father for what they really are. Then she gets older, has a mind of her own, and realizes her family isn’t as progressive as she once saw them to be. By the end, Jean Louise does not disown her father, but rather decides she can live in the tension of loving him and realizing and acknowledging his deep flaws. It's a beautiful story, I think.
As a standalone novel, I can see why Lee’s editor didn’t think it would work. The story isn’t as strong as Mockingbird’s. But to read them together provides an eye-opening experience of seeing a character and her world through a young girl’s eyes, then seeing that same character evolve into a young woman with her own opinions who has the scales removed about her heritage. Together, the two books are a coming-of-age story that can resonate even today.
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields
Published: 2006, but it's been updated a few times since
If you want to know about Harper Lee, her father A.C. Lee, and the small town of Monroeville, Alabama that she grew up in, you can do worse than to rely on To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman as starting points. Pretty much every character and mannerism is from her experiences growing up.
Turns out that Harper took the tried and true writerly advice to “write what you know” and ran with it.
Her early life was almost a facsimile of what you see in her famous first novel.
Dill was none other than famous writer Truman Capote, who lived right next door growing up. They remained friends for life, and one of the most interesting chapters of Harper's life (and the book) was her involvement with Capote’s investigation of the Clutter murders in Garden City, Kansas that led to the famous In Cold Blood. Their relationship through the entirety of both of their lives — including their eventual falling out — was really interesting to read about.
Also fascinating was the story of how Go Set a Watchman ultimately became To Kill a Mockingbird. And to everyone’s surprise, the book took off right away, selling millions of copies in the first few years, and was turned into a crazy successful movie, for which Gregory Peck won a Best Actor award for his iconic role as Atticus.
Everyone thought another breakout novel would be on the way shortly. Harper wanted (and was expected) to be a new voice of Southern writing.
But alas, the intense weight of fame and expectation led to her becoming a recluse and never (intentionally) publishing anything again.
Shields does a great job telling Harper's story, even if it feels like she deserves more than just the 250 or so pages he gives her.
Most readers will wish for more detail about her life post-fame, but so does everyone. Lee went decades without giving an interview. That was sort of the whole gist of her reclusiveness. So the period from roughly 1970 to 2010 is mostly a blank space. She lived between NYC and Alabama, and just didn't do much.
The book was originally published in 2006, but as time went on and events transpired Shields went back and added things, including a lengthy new epilogue that dealt with the Watchman controversy, as well as her death in 2016. Really, that last period of her life should be a couple chapters worth versus just an epilogue. But overall, it's a good, very readable biography that provides loads of useful background info.
Next month, our book club is reading Educated. It was one of my favorite reads of 2018, and I wrote about it in No. 7 of this newsletter.
That's it for me this week. Let me know what you're reading — I always enjoy hearing from you!