Sunday, 4 October 2015

Go Set A Watchman ~ By Harper Lee

All along, I thought that it was a bad idea to publish this book - as a first draft of her Pulitzer Prize winning novel 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.  Did Harper Lee really want the world raking over her first attempt at telling Scout's story? I was especially suspicious that the novel only came to the world's attention after the death of Lee's sister last year, at 103 years of age. Alice Lee, an Alabama lawyer who was 'a confidante, housemate and gatekeeper for her sister Harper Lee', (Washington Post) had kept the manuscript amongst her possessions and it was only found by her lawyer, when she died. Should that lawyer have handed over the manuscript to the publishing world? Why hadn't the book been destroyed, if it was never meant to be published? Is it not like a diary, private yes, but begging to be read simply because it is written down?

The scenario reminded me very much of two hundred years ago and another set of sisters; Jane and Cassandra Austen. The elder sister, Cassandra decided to destroy many of Austen's letters, and perhaps manuscripts, too - who knows. No doubt, Cassandra did it to protect the integrity and reputation of her sister. She made that decision, and acted, perhaps on Jane's instruction, to set her sister's words alight. Did Alice Lee do wrong by not doing the same?

As an English teacher, I have read and taught 'To Kill a Mockingbird' many times and every time, I am still stunned by the skill of the writer and the wisdom of the text.  In hindsight, it was naive and foolish of me to be think that Mockingbird was born into the world, in so perfect a fashion.  What 'Go Set a Watchman' is, in fact, is a first draft of the novel that we love so dearly, and it must only be thought of in this way.  In this version, she decides to include how Scout deals with menstruation, her first dance, kissing a boy, learning about the facts of life; unimaginable in Mockingbird.  She also omits the trial and Boo Radley too, and gives Dr Finch a much more prominent role. The biggest shock, of course, is the revelation that Atticus was as one time, in the Klu Klux Klan.  Now, as Atticus explains it, it was only so that he could discover for himself, the identity of the other Klan members, but it is a shock nonetheless.

This novel is much grittier than its sleeker offspring; the racist filth that spouts from a speaker at a local meeting is meant to disturb and perhaps gives a truer account of what life was really like in Alabama in the 1950s.  In this book, World War Two has just ended, and Moville is littered with returned, injured soldiers, again, something new.  This brings a whole other flavour to the novel.

As the narrator in Watchman is omniscient, the book is much more adult in style and so can afford to be more adult in its content.  I can see why this style appealed to Lee in the first place, the subject matter being the stuff of adult life.  Let me just mention the title, which is a line quoted from a preacher in the novel and repeated by the narrator near the book's end.  To 'Go set a watchman', means to place a watchman, or a look-out, on your soul.  She is talking about how we all need to listen to our consciences, if we are to know the difference between right and wrong.   The irony is that it is Atticus, and perhaps the children too, who literally become  the watchmen for Tom Robinson in Mockingbird.   In hindsight, you can see how one book begot the other.
And that is , ultimately, why I think that this book is worth reading.  You can see how the character of Scout is formed - the feisty, opinionated Jean-Louise is not so very different to her literary daughter and even our understanding of Atticus, is deepened by reading this first novel.
So, I would say to you, that, in this case, I am glad that Alice Lee did not play God, as Cassandra Austen did, and destroy her sister's manuscript.  She left it to fate to decide its future and now it is up to you and I to decide to read it or not.  I have made my decision and am happy with it.   Have you? 

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