Mockingbirds, watchmen, and novelists: on Harper Lee and novel-writing.

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Since the release of Harper Lee's "Go Set A Watchman" yesterday, the internet has been buzzing with controversy. Is this new book an earlier draft of or sequel to "To Kill A Mockingbird," Lee's first novel, one of the most beloved books of all time? How much did, or does, Lee herself (now in her 90s and in very poor health in an assisted-living facility in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama) know or authorize of this "new" book's release? There's been some doubt about the book's origins for some time – see here and here – and even about whether the literary merits of the first novel are as strong as everybody always says. 

As a native of Alabama, where "To Kill a Mockingbird" is the Bear Bryant of cultural touchstones–a point of pride in a state that hasn't always had so much to be proud of–I can't be totally neutral about all this. Among my prized possessions is a typed, signed letter sent in 2007 from Miss Alice Lee, Harper's beloved sister and guardian and a longtime practitioner of law in their father's firm, gently declining my naïve request to come down to Monroeville and meet Harper Lee and say hello. She explained that her sister's state of health would prevent more than family and a few close friends from visiting. That was the first I'd heard of Harper Lee's poor health, then. Alice Lee passed away last year, at age 103, by all accounts completely mentally undiminished. Arrangements to publish "Watchman" followed shortly thereafter, with many wondering whether she would have approved of the new book.

Although I was interviewed about "Watchman" this week, I haven't read more than the first chapter online, and sadly, I find it disappointing–the prose is flat and expository in a way that supports the idea that this "new" book is really an early draft of "To Kill a Mockingbird" or something else, and very possibly not meant for publication. As The New York Times reports, "When she submitted the novel nearly 60 years ago, Ms. Lee was told to rewrite the book from young Scout's perspective and to turn it into a coming-of-age story. 'My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout,' Ms. Lee said in a statement. 'I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.'" However, this whole controversy leads me to speculate on what it might teach us about writing–and as someone who's written more than a few novel drafts myself, I've got some thoughts about this whole process from the inside.

First, as I told the Press-Citizen writer, this whole "Mockingbird" thing reminds us that no piece of writing springs fully formed, like Athena, from the head of Zeus. It's the first lesson of all my classes, from Paideia to creative writing: to get words on the page, you start by giving yourself permission to write "a really, really shitty first draft." Over the years, these wise words from Anne Lamott's "Bird By Bird" have unlocked more anxious perfectionists than I can count–students hovering in the doorway of their paper's introduction or their story's crucial scene, literally paralyzed with anxiety–and they have helped me, too, complete drafts of a dissertation, articles, two novels, multiple stories and a nonfiction book, among many other things. Some have been published. Some are under consideration with publishers and journals. Others are in the drawer, and likely to stay there. But none are "wasted" effort–every draft gets you farther along the writers' path than you were before.

Notice I said drafts. Because another reality of the writing process is that you can't always know whether your draft will pan out, whether a publisher will say yes or no, or whether you yourself will decide to put Novel A in the drawer and start Novel B. Just about every published novelist I know wrote at least two or three novels–not only multiple drafts of the same novel, but totally different novels–before lighting on the one that broke out. So when you hear a writer being asked about her "first" novel, look for that rueful smile on her face: it may be the first published one, but the sixth novel she has actually written. The writing process involves a staggering amount of word-production for a very small amount of published product. And to be a writer, you have to make your peace with that: there is no certain outcome, and no way to that book you dream of but by an amount of work that often shocks non-writers. It doesn't surprise me at all that "To Kill a Mockingbird" and its characters exist in multiple versions. The only question is which one Lee herself would still consider "finished" and publishable, and why.

Multiple obstacles shimmer up in front of you when you're trying to get your draft written. The first lesson, and the hardest one, is just to do it. The real goal of a shitty first draft (SFD), as I teach and practice it, is to get to the end of it, or something that feels like the end, so you can then go back and see what all you've got working in there, including things you discovered along the way and didn't plan (and every piece of writing contains such discoveries.) You sling things down on the page as semi-conscious notes to yourself like Jackson Pollock hurling paint, marking your spot with something like the color or feeling you want to plant there. Right, you mutter to yourself, I'll go back and fix it and polish it up later, but for now I'm just on my race to the end. I've got to get to the end just so I know what happens. In my experience, fiction, even more than nonfiction, demands this approach. To me, it explains some of the flat, hasty feeling of the "Watchman" excerpt as published. It's the classic SFD approach: toss it down there on the page and keep going, so you make it available for yourself to use and refine later if you need it. 

There's also the question of internal authority – never easy for any writer, particularly not (I'm extrapolating and speculating here) for a woman of the mid-twentieth-century South. Lee expressed a wish early on in her career to be known as "the Jane Austen of south Alabama." This ambition could cut two ways, both of which are visible in current understandings of Austen herself. One, you could end up in a droll Southern-woman-writer ghetto, focusing on whimsical village characters and unthreatening canned epiphanies (the twee English-village Jane of tea cozies and bad films).  Two–the more difficult route–you could speak against your world's narrownesses by hardening and sharpening your focus, letting irony and even anger season your prose (the gimlet eye you can see at work when you actually read Austen's novels.) But doing that means confronting authority in a serious way–that shadowy complex of good girls don't, exemplified as in so many eras by the world of men, and fathers. Jane Austen runs up against it. So would a bright girl in a small Southern town. 

For example, consider "Landscapes of the Heart," the memoir of the brilliant Mississippi writer Elizabeth Spencer, a contemporary of Eudora Welty and of Harper Lee whose psychological complexity and literary grace put her in the class of great woman writers of the world, not just the South. (Read The Southern Woman: New and Selected Fiction to discover her work, including "The Light in the Piazza," which became a Broadway musical.) After she published her first novel, "Fire in the Morning," in 1948, then "This Crooked Way" in 1952, and traveled to Italy on a Guggenheim fellowship, a growing rift with her father got deeper. When she returned to Mississippi in 1955, Emmett Till had just been killed. And when she deplored this violence to her father, a simmering conflict erupted, eventually leading to an act that feels much like disinheritance. "His pronouncement finally came," Spencer writes,

He would give me two thousand dollars in cash for going to New York.  After that was spent, he didn't know what I would do. I took it at once, as I was so glad to leave. I didn't myself know what I would do when it was spent, but whatever it was, it would be done without further reference to Luther Spencer or to Carrollton, Mississippi.

Yet it took a while for me to come around to verbalizing the extent of what had happened. I knew it in my bones, in the sick empty feeling there inside long before I could say to myself what I had been given to understand.

            "You don't belong down here anymore."

It's no accident, therefore, that the figure of Atticus Finch, Scout's father, has become more controversial with the release of "Watchman" and its alternate image of him. What's additionally interesting to me here is the novelist's problem of how to reckon with the beloved and complex figure of a parent–real or imagined–over time. Multiple versions of Atticus may reflect the multiple versions of our parents we all develop as we grow, because we are developing multiple versions of ourselves, too, that see and understand and reflect and reevaluate. This process can bring pain, confusion, enlightenment, love, understanding and all of the above. 

Virginia Woolf–another great novelist–once wrote that "the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past." Therefore, a decision to revise the novel that became "To Kill a Mockingbird" by focusing on a child-Scout rather than an adult-Scout makes some creative sense from a couple angles. It lets a writer capitalize on the "complete emotions" of childhood, their particular specificity and richness, which are fiction-writing gold. It gives a writer a just-distant-enough point of view you can see Lee adjusting subtly throughout "Mockingbird," sometimes we are close enough to Scout's perspective to see only what she sees and no more, and sometimes we are standing next to her in some unspecified future adulthood, looking back. And if an adult writer is struggling with bewildering changes in a beloved parent as an adult–a segregationist Atticus, battling arthritis, re-encountered by a twenty-something Jean Louise in her twenties returned South from New York, is grimmer and sadder than the Atticus of "Mockingbird," book or film–approaching that parent as a child could let her be true to her emotions and their complexity at some level while still giving the story a satisfying fictional shape.

Again, I haven't read "Watchman." And I'm no surer than anyone of the truth of its path to publication. But I am intrigued by the questions this whole story is inspiring readers to ask, all over again. And perhaps that is the greatest gift of any work of literature–it makes us reexamine what we thought we knew.

READ ON FOR PART TWO!

I've now read the entire text of "Go Set a Watchman," not just the first chapter. When I picked up the book from a stack at Luther's library, my first reaction was, "This is it?" It's surprisingly slim–278 relatively wide-margined, large-typed pages–more like a heavily worked first novel from a recent MFA grad than the behemoth of a "lost manuscript" I was expecting. Having finished it, my feeling is stronger than ever that a) "Watchman" represents an entirely separate manuscript from "To Kill a Mockingbird," not just an early draft revised into "Mockingbird," and b) although "Watchman" offers rich food for thought about the writing process and a young woman's confrontation with her region's history, its murky origins will limit real scholarly conversation about these things until the whole story comes to light. 

"Watchman" bears all the signs of having been rushed into print for profit, with none of the scholarly apparatus normally offered a "lost" manuscript by a well-known author. Consider the recent release of Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiography, "Pioneer Girl," by the South Dakota State Historical Society. A hefty book, rich in photographs, it also bristles with footnotes and appendices and background material, making it clear to readers that the press is ensuring the accuracy and dignity of Wilder's manuscript and reputation and the integrity of a reader's experience.

Another beloved Southern author, Carson McCullers (who gets a hat-tip in "Watchman"–see below) got this proper treatment in 2000 with "Illumination and Night Glare," her unfinished autobiography, from the University Press of Wisconsin. Yet there's none of that apparatus here–just cagily written, chronology-evading jacket copy ("It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of 'To Kill A Mockingbird,' but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context, and new meaning to an American classic,") and a dedication ("In memory of Mr. Lee and Alice,") that alters the original just a bit ("for Mr. Lee and Alice, in consideration of Love & Affection.")  Such a personal thing as a book's dedication having doubtful origins–did Harper Lee really decide to "dedicate" this new book that way? Or to publish it at all?–leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I felt the hidden hand of some decision-maker here who may or may not have been Lee herself, and if not, should reveal him or herself in accordance with scholarly practice.

Elsewhere, that editorial presence is totally absent. "Watchman" reads like a sloppy early draft. On page six, there's a verb-tense error in an otherwise past-tense flashback about Scout's eccentric Cousin Joshua: "On clear days Cousin Joshua read Greek, and he left a thin volume of verse printed privately by a firm in Tuscaloosa. The poetry was so ahead of its time no one has deciphered it yet, but Jean Louise's aunt keeps it displayed casually and prominently on a table in the livingroom." There are early-draft structural issues, too; overlong scenes of Dill, Jem and Scout playing "church" and a scene about a minister quarreling over hymns that reads like an homage to Anthony Trollope, who got such humorous mileage out of Victorian High-Church minutiae. The only problem is that even to me, a fellow Southern Methodist, it's not all that funny. As I said in Part One of this post, that's inevitable when you're writing a draft: you throw in all kinds of scenes to see where your real material might be. But that doesn't mean you want them published and between covers as if they are your real material. 

 [Some plot spoilers begin here-read with care.]

And now to the separate-manuscript question, and to the thematic questions that have been teasing readers in the press. "Watchman" doesn't make sense to me as anything but a draft of a separate project from "Mockingbird." Although it drinks at the same emotional well, it's just too different, completely anchored in an adult Scout's re-encounters with her childhood world. I can believe that a young Harper Lee set this aside and took a totally new run at the project to get a draft that became "Mockingbird," but it's harder for me to believe that this draft was revised into anything else. 

"Watchman's" central conflict is this: how will a girl make sense of her role in a beloved, troubling and limiting place? With some early-draft confusion but with considerable vigor, it explores that role in terms of race, class and gender. At issue, as I signaled in Part 1 of this post, is authority – namely, a young woman's authority to see and to name the aspects of her childhood world which will snuff out her spirit if she lets them.

First, race. The attitudes Scout discovers on her return to Maycomb–gradualism, paternalism, outright viciousness–won't surprise anyone familiar with mid-twentieth-century Southern history. About a hundred pages in, a stunned Scout eavesdrops on a White Citizens' Council meeting in the Maycomb County courtroom–site of Tom Robinson's trial in Mockingbird–where a speaker pours out racial invective as Atticus and Hank sit and listen. In the last third of the book, Scout argues angrily about racial paternalism, states' rights and the NAACP with both Atticus and her Uncle Jack, a tiresome Victorian-literature-quoting patriarch who actually hits Scout at one point, in a Flannery O'Connor-esque shocked-out-of-complacency move that doesn't work.

"Honey," Atticus tells Scout in "Watchman," "you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people...They've made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they're far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of 'em voting than ever before. Then the NAACP stepped in with its fantastic demands and shoddy ideas of government–can you blame the South for resenting being told what to do about its own people by people who have no idea of its daily problems?"

Uncle Jack similarly blames the Supreme Court and the NAACP for pushing too fast–a type of gradualism Martin Luther King was later to rebuke in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." "Now then, Scout," said her uncle. "Now, at this minute, a political philosophy foreign to it is being pressed on the South, and the South's not ready for it..."

Yet Scout rebukes both these beloved figures with fire and sarcasm. "I grew up right here in your house," she reproves Atticus, "and I never knew what was in your mind. I only heard what you said. You neglected to tell me that we were naturally better than the Negroes...that they were able to go so far but so far only...You're a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant, Atticus. When you talked of justice you forgot to say that justice is something that has nothing to do with people...You are telling them that Jesus loves them, but not much. You are using frightful means to justify ends that you think are for the good of the most people...you cannot use people as your pawns, Atticus. You cannot."

This is a different Scout than "Mockingbird," who's learning to separate her conscience from her father's: as Uncle Jack tells her, "as you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God...you had to kill yourself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity."

This Jungian break–kill?–dramatizes what's really at stake in "Watchman": a young woman struggling to give birth to herself as the sort of independent thinker against which everything in her world conspires. Giraldi calls her rebuke "obnoxious," but for a young female writer from Maycomb-world, for reasons I described in Part One of this post, it's also incredibly brave.

"Watchman" notices, too, how race and class mix. When Scout confronts her sweetheart Hank about his attendance at the WCC, he speaks, with considerable pain, about the fact that for a poor boy and aspiring lawyer like him, nonconformity is fatal. "I'm part of Maycomb County's trash," he pleads, "but I'm part of Maycomb County. I'm a coward, I'm a little man, I'm not worth killing, but this is my home...How can I be of any use to a town if it's against me?”

A Finch, a member of the town gentry, can afford to take a stand; a poor boy, who'll be reminded of his origins the second he steps out of line, cannot. I thought of Lillian Smith's "Killers of the Dream," which describes exactly this sort of tacit "bargain" maintained on the backs of African American people. That could not have made it any easier for someone like Hank to be stuck in the middle–a human complexity a novelist can gesture at here.

"Watchman" comes to life for me when Scout confronts the stifling cage of 1950s Southern femininity. As critic Maureen Corrigan has also noted, one of the novel's best scenes is the party hosted by Scout's redoubtable Aunt Alexandra for young Maycomb women. Scout can only linger, horrified, on the edges of a wickedly accurate conversational montage of babies, husbands and food.

"Mr. Talbert looked at me and said...he'd never learn to sit on the pot...of beans every Thursday night. That's the Yankee thing he picked up in the...War of the Roses? No, honey, I said Warren proposes...to the garbage collector. That was all I could do after she got through...the rye. I just couldn't help it, it made me feel like a big...A-men! I'll be so glad when that's over...the way he's treated her...piles and piles of diapers, and he said why was I so tired? After all, he'd been...in the files the whole time, that's where it was."

Significantly, Scout returns to this role as she rages at Atticus: "Why in the name of God didn't you marry again? Marry some nice dim-witted Southern lady who would have raised me right? Turned me into a simpering, mealy-mouthed magnolia type who bats her eyelashes and crosses her hands and lives for nothing but her lil' ole hus-band. At least I would have been blissful. I'd have been typical one hundred per cent Maycomb...I would have spread out like Aunty, fanned myself on the front porch, and died happy."

Exile runs in the bloodstream of this troubled book written by, the reader senses, a young woman who fears it's happening to her. "You've cheated me," Scout accuses Atticus, "you've driven me out of my home and now I'm in a no-man's-land but good–there's no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I'll never be entirely at home anywhere else."  Sometimes she pleas, "God in heaven, take me away from here." After the WCC meeting, she walks through a town that feels totally foreign. "Go away, the old buildings said. There is no place for you here. You are not wanted. We have secrets." 

Yet love shadows this book, too. The first sentence of the manuscript is, "Since Atlanta, she had looked out the dining car window with a delight almost physical," as a beloved landscape comes to life around her. And she does love this landscape, nearly saying to Hank that she'd marry him if he brought her to live at Finch's Landing, the family's ancestral land by the river: "I'll swap New York for this place but not for Maycomb."

Considering everything, my view is this: for all its flaws, "Watchman" is potentially really interesting to Southern-literature scholars–especially alongside the work of other women writers–but until its full publication history and relationship to the finished "Mockingbird" is known, we won't be able to talk about it without a lot more speculating than most scholars prefer. Yet I'm intrigued by the picture of a young Alabama writer this book does give me to speculate on–a young woman clued-in enough to the literary world to tip a hat to her contemporary Carson McCullers ("It takes a lot of what I don’t have to be a member of this wedding,")–and ambitious enough to set out on the uncertain project of writing a novel about a vexed, beloved place.

Amy Weldon

Amy Weldon

Amy Weldon, native Alabamian, is professor of English at Luther College and the author of three books: The Hands-On Life: How to Wake Yourself Up and Save The World (Cascade Books, 2018), The Writer's Eye: Observation and Inspiration for Creative Writers (Bloomsbury, 2018), and Eldorado, Iowa: A Novel (Bowen Press Books, 2019). Her website is amyeweldon.com.

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Comments

  • July 22 2015 at 9:10 am
    Jerry Johnson
    Well said, Amy. Although almost all "popular culture" novels are rushed to print with the intent of maximizing sales, we expect more respectful treatment of the works of literary giants. What an enigma Harper Lee's literary legend has been. One book puts her in the spotlight of eternal fame and worship. A second book casts shadows on it all. And there is nothing else on stage. Virtually nothing.
  • March 5 2017 at 9:01 pm
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