Speaking Volumes: Mockingbird and first drafts

The problem with Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman starts and ends with the book jacket, where it is advertised as a “landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird”.

This is a superbly economical description, not untrue except in its multiple omissions. Charles J Shields has an account of Lee’s slow development as a writer in his biography, Mockingbird. She spent seven years working on a batch of short stories that were submitted to a publisher but never accepted. In 1957, she wrote Go Set A Watchman, retitling it “Atticus” after the main character, and submitting it to the offices of JB Lippincott.

Her wise and protective editor, Tay Hohoff, thought the manuscript was a mess – “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel” – but also felt that the book was not the work of an amateur or a tyro. Under Hohoff’s guidance, Lee rewrote Atticus/ Go Set A Watchman thrice, shifting from third to the first person. She finally settled on the unusual, distinctive, and beloved voice that made To Kill A Mockingbird such a classic: Scout’s voice as a child, interwoven with Jean Louise Finch’s deeper understanding of Maycomb County as an adult, looking back on the trial of a black man by a white court.

As a “new novel”, Go Set A Watchman is a moral and literary disappointment. Jean Louise Finch returns to Alabama, 26, and is steadily disillusioned with Maycomb County. Her brother Jem, who was the other half of <I>Mockingbird’s<P> conscience, is only present in flashbacks: he had “dropped dead in his tracks” of a sudden, inheriting her mother’s weak heart.

Her father, Atticus, has become a bigot in his old age. He admits to having attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, and appears to be “dedicated to keeping the Negroes in their places”. Dill, who was modelled on Harper Lee’s friend Truman Capote, has been edged out by a bland boyfriend, Henry Clinton, who struggles not to be seen as white trash by Harper Lee’s judgmental Aunt Alexandra. Faultlines crisscross this unpromising terrain, especially in the final, stilted section where arguments replace plot. The Finches’ lonely, ghostly neighbour, Boo Radley, does not enter this novel.

Read only as a previously undiscovered novel, Go Set A Watchman is a puzzling betrayal – a sequel that carries none of the power, humour or moral force of the original, the narrator’s voice uneven and unformed.

It is, however, infused with Lee’s disillusionment; in New York, she’d found a better world, where the false fences of segregation had fallen. Home was no longer the place she loved and remembered – home stood revealed as a place of sharp, bitter divisions, between white, Negro and white trash. Arriving at adulthood, she had been forced to question those whom she had loved and looked up to in her youth.

This is the truest and best passage from Go Set A Watchman: “Blind, that’s what I am. I never opened my eyes. I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I looked only in their faces… I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour.”

The myth of the perfect novel, the writer who sets down her words from start to finish, each sentence ringing true, is a strong one, and yet it has little substance. F Scott Fitzgerald wrote Trimalchio in 1924. He hesitated over the title, suggesting On The Road To West Egg or Gold-Hatted Gatsby instead. Trimalchio’s Jay Gatsby is nastier, more violent; Carraway is much seedier, too. It took four months of rewriting for The Great Gatsby to take its final shape. Trimalchio was published, but it is read only as a curiosity, chiefly by those interested in the craft of writing.

JM Coetzee’s novels emerge from even more rigorous drafts. In her notes, Molly Schwartzburg describes the nine drafts that went into the making of The Life and Times of Michael K, all set down in yellow or blue University of Cape Town exercise books. In the first draft, Michael is Anna’s son; in another, he is her grandson; in the fifth draft, he is her common-law husband, and then Coetzee cycles back to the original relationship. Drafts are not just “versions” – drafts are where novels change shape, where novelists find their truest and most persuasive voices, where they decide what to discard and what must stay.

If Go Set A Watchman had been marketed as the first draft of a classic, it is unlikely that it would have reached the millions of readers who’ve bought into the myth of Lee’s “new”, dismayingly unpolished novel.

But if you read both books together, as rough draft and final classic, it is impossible not to be moved. In Go Set A Watchman, Atticus Finch drifts into bigotry; in real life, Scout’s father went the other way. “But AC Lee changed his views about race relations during the remainder of the 1950s. And Nelle watched as her father, formerly a conservative on matters of race and social progress, became an advocate for the rights of Negroes.”

In her first draft of Mockingbird, Harper Lee let her worst nightmares and fears have free play; in the final book, she allowed Atticus to stand up for what was right. In both books, Maycomb remained what it was: a segregated community, the divisions between the races so sharp that neither Harper Lee nor Scout Finch could imagine or enter the parallel world that Tom Robinson’s children inhabited. Go Set A Watchman’s importance is not that it was the sequel to Lee’s Mockingbird; it is important because it was the precursor. In all its roughness, it softens none of the bigotry and racism of Nelle Harper Lee’s American South.

(Published July 20, 2015, in the Business Standard)


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