Monday, September 07, 2015

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee's Search for the Story She Wanted to Tell

This weekend I finished Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. Originally written in 1957, three years before she published her iconic and beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird, this was an early draft of that classic story, though so different it stands on its own as a novel, albeit an uneven one.

I debated inwardly about whether or not I wanted to (or should) read this book, given all the controversy that has swirled around it. I won't revisit that here in detail, except to say that I feel deeply sad if Harper Lee was manipulated to give her consent to the publication of the book. I'm afraid that's likely the case, given the timing of its release (it was announced just a few months after her sister's death, and Alice had been highly protective of Harper and her work) and her previous statements regarding not wanting to publish anything else. I also find it frustrating to realize just how misleading the copy on the flap, and other advertising, no doubt, reads: as though this was a "new novel" intended as a sequel to Mockingbird. Which it very much wasn't and isn't.

I do think that it's likely that such a manuscript would have one day ended up in someone's archives, so that scholars would have access to it. Much of my own interest in reading it -- and I put it on hold at the library rather than buy it and further benefit Harper Collins -- stemmed from curiosity over how it would read as a draft. I expected there to be a lot more overlap than there was. Instead, what you find are the seeds of the greater novel to come: the characters and setting still in development, the germ of certain ideas humming in the background. This is very much the novel of an excellent writer still learning how to shape a novel...and still trying to figure out precisely what story she wants to tell.

The story in Watchman, in fact, is a completely different story than Mockingbird. Without providing too many spoilers, it focuses on 26 year old Jean Louise (Scout), lifelong resident of Macomb, Alabama. Jean Louise has been living, since her college years, in New York, but she still comes home to visit her family a few times a year. On this particular visit, she realizes that she no longer knows where she fits -- she no longer feels like she belongs to (or in) Macomb, but on the other hand, she is realizing, to a staggering degree, how much this tiny southern town has shaped her. She is also recognizing how much other things have shaped her: especially her upbringing by her rock-steady, older father Atticus; and the fact that she was raised, just as much, by a black woman as a white man, since their housekeeper Calpurnia took her in hand after her mother's death when she was only two.

Watchman is a coming of age tale: it's about Scout's (sorry, Jean Louise's -- she is called that much more often here than she ever is in Mockingbird) coming to grips with growing up. She's trying to find her place in the world; she's trying to understand that she is her own person apart from the people and places that she loves so much and that have influenced her so deeply. She's also trying to realize that she can part ways with some of their ideas and mistakes because she's got to learn to have and make her own.

So much of what makes this story different from the one Lee eventually decided she wanted and needed to tell is that it has a different heart altogether. It is a story of a young adult dealing with growing up and a crisis that precipitates her awareness of who she is and is becoming. In actuality, I think there are a couple of crisis moments, one involving Calpurnia and one involving Atticus, that are almost equally emotionally powerful, though the moment with Calpurnia isn't given enough development or weight, in my humble opinion.

Because Jean Louise is thinking through her own identity, and how her upbringing shaped that identity, she occasionally flashes back to her childhood and youth. It's those flashback moments that will feel most familiar to Mockingbird readers, but also frustrating. If you love Mockingbird, then coming upon these moments gives you the exciting thrill of a familiar train rushing down the tracks, bearing someone you know and love -- but then the train rushes by in clacking roar, not stopping at your station. Or if it does stop, the person who gets off is not who you expect. Most of the anecdotes related from Scout's past in Watchman are different from the ones she tells us in Mockingbird, and while it's interesting to get different glimpses (including moments of Lee's unique brand of humour-wrapped-in-poignancy) they feel tantalizingly brief or somehow unconnected to the narrative with the same depth we're accustomed to. I think this rings true to this story that Lee set out to tell, about a confused young woman who discovers some painful and joyful truths about herself as she tries to sort out a rush and tumble waterfall of memories, but it means that memory plays second fiddle to the more important melody line of young-woman-finding-herself.

Memory has a far different role in Mockingbird, where the heart of the story is Scout's childhood, roughly her early elementary school years. We dive deep into it from the first page and never really come up from the dive.  The narrative is still told in flashback, but we're never entirely sure just how old the adult Scout is now, and how far back she's looking. We've still got a sense of unfolding awareness, but this time it's the awareness of a child coming to understand some of the suffering of the world, and how our choices can matter a great deal in how we respond to it. The intense focus of the second half of Mockingbird's narrative on one particular year provides a backdrop for exploring that growing awareness and also some deeply rich character study. But you get a definite sense that the adult voice looking back is the voice of a woman who has not only come to terms with the memories she's relating, but has lovingly shaped them and is telling them on purpose because she already understands their power.

The raw emotion of emotional exploration in Watchman, where Jean Louise sometimes sees memory as the only place where she can safely live and love (while feeling afraid to come outside of those memories back into the land of the living, where relationships are ragged, loss is real, and choices are hard) gives way in Mockingbird to the voice of someone who has come to terms with the hardness of life, looked it square in the face, and understood how even the hard moments shaped her for good. We know that many of the things Scout goes through as a child are not things she could have fully understood then, so the telling of the story and the way it's told subtly points to that kind of deep reflection.

One reason I can't ever read the end of Mockingbird without a flood of tears is because the narrative voice is permeated with such peace and such a deep awareness of the love that held her, formed her, and shaped her in her childhood. Whatever may or may not have happened in the intervening years -- and Watchman, since it's not a sequel, does not really provide us with knowledge of that -- the Jean Louise/Scout who looks back in Mockingbird tells her story with a depth and serenity that speaks of real maturity and love. In Watchman, she is still unraveling bits and pieces as she attempts to fit those stories together into something that makes sense. And might this not reflect, in some real sense, the actual creative process that Lee herself was going through as she wrote a first draft? In Mockingbird, the narrator seems like someone who has gone through that process off-scene and now sketches the picture she's put together from the past in powerful strokes so we can envision it too.

What amazes me is how a woman as young as Lee (31 when she wrote Watchman, 34 by the time she published Mockingbird) became such an artist in just three short years. It makes me wonder what all the in-between drafts must have looked like, as she honed in on Scout's voice and the particular story that called out to her and asked to be told. The pivotal situation that drives that second half of the narrative in Mockingbird is barely glanced at in a paragraph or two in Watchman, a memory that Scout herself acknowledges but barely explores. The page feels practically lit with neon when you read it post-Mockingbird, but you wonder when Lee herself realized that the seed of the story she needed and wanted to tell lay right there, like a small stone you pick up on the beach and rub between your fingers to get a sense of how it feels.

How many times did she take up pen and paper to explore that story, to write it and re-write it, to feel the heft of it again, to drop it into the water to see what it reflected, and then pocket it for later, only to take it back out and begin to once again explore its contours and colors?

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