Image Source: from Annie Laurie Miller's papers, archive of the
Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Columbia University
I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was fourteen years old, as part of a tenth-grade reading assignment for English class. I also saw the Gregory Peck film more than once because my mom loved Gregory Peck, who looked so much like my handsome grandfather did as a young man. But until now, I'd only read the book for that long ago English assignment. I'd mentally classed it with "Southern family, female protagonist" fiction, along with books like Carson McCuller's Member of the Wedding, although I felt TKAM was deeply unsettling. There was something about the way Lee depicted the ugly way people reacted when caught desiring something society frowned upon and about the mob mentality of humans that made me uncomfortable. I don't think it occurred to me that that was her point. I didn't like what TKAM told me about people. If you'd ask me to sum up the book, I'd have said Harper Lee was telling us about justice and injustice or even more simplistically, about good and evil. I was a huge reader early on, just like Scout, but I can honestly say that in rereading TKAM, which recently was named the winner of PBS's The Great American Read, I've realized that I didn't understand the book in any depth. I didn't see how great, how deep TKAM actual is, as an examination of culture and people.
Since I finished reading/listening/rewatching the film, I've spent the past few weeks wondering about how I could not have seen, even at age fourteen, how profound what Lee was telling us about the grayness of the moral spectrum and the ugliness that is racism. (Especially since a year later, at age fifteen, I was busy telling everybody who would listen that Anna Karenina was one of the most important novels ever. Go ahead and insert an eye roll, because I was pretty dramatic at that age.) I try to imagine what adult readers in the 1960's thought of this book and wonder what could be lost on a young person reading it. After reflecting upon it, I think the problem with assigned reading of books like To Kill a Mockingbird when you're in Middle School or High School is that you are reading a story told from a child's perspective and, in all likelihood, you do not see the full effect of Scout Finch's story because you yourself are still a child and you're used to things being from a child's perspective- after all, that's your current life view. The huge impact of Scout's story on an adult reader in the 1960's is perhaps more muted when you yourself are a child. I related to Scout as a peer. I identified strongly with her bookishness, and with her tomboyish ways. I also identified with Jem's burgeoning maturity, his sense of justice, and his disillusionment. The adult reader, however, immediately recognizes the racism, sexism, and misogyny all so skillfully rendered, seen through Scout's innocent eyes.
As an adult, reading this book forty plus years after I first read it, I think the most disturbing aspect of Lee's story is how sadly fresh this story still feels. We still have innocent black men like Tom Robinson who die simply because they are black, whether doing nothing or even in the midst of doing their job as a security officer. We still may have young black men being lynched in America. In 2018! Harper Lee's Tom Robinson is a poignant character. Without question, Tom Robinson, with his compassionate and gentle spoken way is, to me, a mockingbird, the true mockingbird of this story. The false accusations of rape and physical assault heaped on him by a young woman and her family are touchy subjects to tackle, in a world that all to often doesn't believe women who have been sexually assaulted and where women are likely to endure questioning far less delicate than Atticus Finch's. However, although the book is from Scout's perspective and that she does not engage much, other than with Calpurnia, with the black residents of Maycomb, how much do we really see about Tom Robinson and his life in this book? As an au courant reader, I feel it's important to realize that this is a book about racism from a white person's perspective. More on that later.
Lee's story of injustice and false accusation potentially has different shadings based on the generational, gender, and racial perspective of the reader. There is, sadly, a long tradition and much legal precedent of disbelieving sexual assault victims, but that certainly depends on who was doing the assaulting. Historically, a young black man just looking at a young white woman could end badly in the Deep South. Meanwhile, even in the present day, a white man raping just about anyone can get off with no jail time. How do we, as readers in 2018, unpack Mayella Ewell's actions? There is moral complexity in her situation and in the community's reactions to it. In the era of the #metoo movement, we can look at the abuse heaped upon Mayella with more a penetrating gaze and no small amount of ire. The gravity of her actions, her lies, in a world where many times women are blamed for their sexual assault, or they are not even believed when they have been harmed, feels visceral. But Atticus Finch's questioning of her, and of other witnesses in Tom Robinson's case, makes clear that Mayella was harmed. Just not by the accused. Her story is at once poignant and utterly horrifying. Here we have a young woman trapped in a life that seems devoid of love and hope, abused physically and, we can infer, likely sexually, by her father. She is wounded, trapped in this heartless situation. She craves love and affection enough that she effectively sets a trap for a damaged yet still, even to Scout Finch's eyes, beautiful young black man. That he is married, a father, and has been kind to Mayella does not spare him from his community's condemnation and her brutal betrayal of his kindness to her. (The unintentional sting of his statement that he, a black man, felt sorry for her, a white woman, which implies he has more self-esteem than she has, is something apparently intolerable to the jury and to the community at large.) Tom Robinson is doomed by racist taboos, by a need to affirm white supremacy, and in a sad way by his own goodness. I pity Mayella but I can never forgive her, even though I am cynically unsurprised by her weakness that ultimately cost a man his life. After a lifetime of abuse, she cannot give truth to the court or even to herself. She wanted Tom, wanted to be with him physically, and she hates herself as much as her father hated her for it. Tom Robinson, a kind man, a man for whom it is physically impossible to have restrained and assaulted this young woman, is rendered a black rapacious monster with his conviction by a jury of his supposed peers- a bunch of "good old boys" white men.
Boo Radley, a character who seems to have mental health issues, is another interesting portrayal. He too, just like Tom, is perceived in his community as some sort of monster. Scout learns, as Jem did with Tom, to see Boo's humanity. When you look at Boo's communications with Jem and Scout, his giving them gifts, either those he made or those that he earned, he is, just as Scout points out, a mockingbird. I am struck by Lee's complex take on mental health comprised in Boo's character. He is a kind man who has done bad things (stabbing his father, albeit not fatally, and hanging with a bad crowd when a young man), but he is a giver of odd gifts, a protector of the vulnerable. Boo, himself a mockingbird, effects belated justice for the other mockingbird who was so cruelly killed by injustice.
"It's always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see where we are." - Jack Finch, Go Set A Watchman
This is such an apt quote for my feelings about how this book got published. Looking back we get an image of Harper Lee having a different plan for Go Set a Watchman.
For quite some time I resisted reading this novel. Beyond the fact that so many who grew up admiring Atticus Finch were outraged by this book, I had a lot of ethical questions about how the book came to publication. One of my little known avocations is that in addition to being active in the child welfare arena (guardian ad litem, guardian advocate, foster parent) for thirteen years I was was also a professional guardian. That's a person who manages the affairs (personal and financial) of someone who is mentally incapacitated. While I managed the lives and affairs of three adult former guardian ad litem youths who never had capacity, all of my state's professional guardian training dealt with those who originally had capacity and who now lack that capacity. The maxim of an ethical professional guardian is substituted judgment. Harper Lee was reportedly deaf, blind and according to some who knew her best, like her sister, lacking in capacity in the few years before her death, after a serious stroke in 2007. Thus, I look at Go Set a Watchman, from a "what would Harper do?" paradigm. My thought was that Harper would have gone on doing what she did for many decades- keeping that first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird (see below) locked away in a safe deposit box. And perhaps gift it upon her death to a University library archive where it could be studied by scholars interested in the evolution of a great American novel. But no. That is clearly not what her lawyer and subsequent executor (who pays herself from Harper's estate, by the by) and her publisher decided to do. So I struggled with whether or not to read this book. Ultimately, I suppose intellectual curiosity won out. That and a desire to perhaps weigh in on whether or not publishing this book in the way it was done was "right."
Go Set a Watchman is an interesting series of vignettes about the residents of Maycomb, Alabama as seen through the eyes of an adult Jean Louise Finch, in the 1950's. Jean Louise is a progressive. Jem, a boy on the cusp of adolescence in TKAM is dead (no spoilers there, you find that out within the first few pages of the book in one tossed off sentence.) Atticus is... well, let's just say he is not exactly the Atticus of TKAM. (In some ways, Uncle Jack's character in this book, with his quiet wisdom, is folded into the character of the Atticus we meet in TKAM.) Although, I can't deny that there is always the fact that a child, even a child like Jean Louise, who thinks of her father as an old man, might hero worship her father for the sense of duty and honor he puts (from her perspective) into Tom Robinson's defense. (I always have to remind myself that Atticus didn't volunteer to represent Tom, he was asked to.) The Atticus we knew through Scout's eyes was a good man, though the veil of racism and classism still shrouds him, to the astute reader. The Atticus we meet in GSAW is a stubborn, aging Alabaman, attended a KKK meeting (ostensibly to keep tabs on what they are doing) and is no fan of the NAACP. He would rather see white lawyers representing black cases because when the NAACP lawyers step in, you get things like... well like Brown versus the Board of Education. Is the Atticus Finch we see as an old man the same man we met in TKAM? Are we merely seeing him through Jean Louise's adult eyes rather than the rosy perspective of an adoring child? Atticus Finch has become an iconic figure in American literature and yet there has been literary criticism such as that by Angela Shaw-Thornburg, a literature professor at the University of South Carolina that points out that he has a "paternalistic and downright accommodationist approach to justice." (I am, however, pragmatic enough to believe that a white man who is a single parent in a racist town in the 1930's might not try to break too much new ground in his legal defense of a black man accused of rape, though an honorable man would still, as did Atticus, try to give him a well-mounted and well-thought out defense.) It is possible to see how these two versions of Atticus are not as different as we would wish them to be. But in that, I feel it is a pity that this iconic figure Harper Lee created, and seemingly wished for most of her life to maintain in the public's eyes as the TKAM Atticus, has been forever altered in our mind by publication of a book Lee may not have wanted you to read for anything other than a scholarly purpose. I prefer to think that Harper Lee, in discarding the first draft of her only book and rewriting it from the perspective of Jean Louise as a child, chose to give us the Atticus she arrived at and wanted the reader to know.
If you look at the photo at the top of this post you will see an index card kept by Harper Lee's literary agent, Annie Laurie Miller. It records the single novel for which she represented Harper Lee, a novel sold to J. B. Lippincott publishing house (later acquired by Harper and Row) in 1957. The first title, Go Set a Watchman, is crossed out and replaced with the title To Kill a Mockingbird. This one card tells us everything we need to know about what Go Set a Watchman is and what Harper Lee intended in keeping it locked away for almost six decades. It was the first draft, set aside, of a novel later rewritten from the perspective of Scout as a child, and honed over the course of three years into To Kill a Mockingbird. If you need more convincing you can read more of the story here.
So what options do you have, if you wish to read Go Set a Watchman for yourself but don't want to potentially enrich a lawyer and publisher that might have gone against Harper Lee's long-held wishes? Check it out of your local library. Or pick up a second hand copy. All safe and legal ways of reading a book that maybe the author wished you wouldn't. Honestly, if I hadn't read it for review purposes, with my analytical hat on, I'd be sad I had done so. So if you want to hold on to your cherished view of Atticus Finch, a good man who did his best, you might want to skip Go Set a Watchman. There's no going back after you've read it.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of the great American novels. Full stop. PBS voters said it was America's "best-loved" novel. I look around at this present juncture in history and question whether it's possible to love something you don't understand. Because I wish the novel's message about racism and injustice was better internalized by American readers. A powerful read.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I feel heartbroken for Harper Lee that the manuscript of this book wasn't just placed in the University of Alabama archives for scholars who wanted to study the origins of To Kill of a Mockingbird. I can give it three stars for the caliber of the writing of the vignettes and anecdotes that comprise this book. This isn't a finished novel. It's not a sequel or prequel. From various passages it is so painfully obvious that this was the first draft of Mockingbird. Its value lies in what it offers scholars who wish to see where she went after this. One can only hope that it doesn't detract from the masterpiece Lee gleaned from this draft.
"It's always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It's hard to see where you are."
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