In defense of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman | Bleader

In defense of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman

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Harper Lee, pictured here in 2007, died Friday at age 89. - CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES
  • Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Harper Lee, pictured here in 2007, died Friday at age 89.

I read Stars in My Crown as a boy sick in bed (it's told by a boy sick in bed) years ago, and came across the movie on TV just in the last few months. The book by Joe David Brown was published in 1947, and the film by Jacques Tourneur was released three years later. I bet Harper Lee knew both works.

Film blogger Ron Reed thought so too. A few years ago he wrote:

Josiah Grey's confrontation with his racist neighbours, their identities (and humanity) masked by white sheets, prefigures one of the best-known and most moving scenes in American film, Atticus Finch's vigil on the jailhouse steps in To Kill a Mockingbird.

I've got to think that a 24-year-old Harper Lee saw Stars in My Crown when it played the local movie house in Monroeville, Alabama. Who knows, maybe she shared popcorn with her peculiar childhood friend, Truman [Capote], who would have been less impressed than she with this nostalgic portrait of a small town much like theirs, with its obvious sense of community and shared values, as well as its less obvious cruelties and racism. A story about adult matters, told by a child: the story of a wise and peaceful man, a man of immense integrity and courage, who simply will not stand by and let his town be less than it might be. 
Josiah Grey was a preacher and Atticus Finch a lawyer. But Finch was equally wise and peaceful, a man of immense integrity and courage, and I wonder if when Harper Lee wrote—actually, rewrote—the character a few years later, she thought with some unease, this has been done before.

The front-page obituary of Lee in Saturday's Tribune rehashes the literary world’s biggest story of 2015. It reminds us that Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, though published last year, was written before Mockingbird and is set several years later, when narrator "Scout" Finch is 26 instead of six "and Atticus is no longer her guiding light." The "principled idealist" of the book that obit writers Elaine Woo and Valerie J. Nelson call "one of the most influential books ever written" is now a "racist who has mingled with Ku Klux Klan members and denounces desegregation."

He is, in short, a man of his time and place, a part of the problem instead of its repudiation.

An editor who initially read the Watchman manuscript saw good things in it, but told Lee it needed to be rewritten and set earlier. "I was a first-time writer," said Lee in a statement when Watchman surfaced, “so I did as I was told." 

I have no idea what went through Lee's head as she did what she was told. I do know something about the pride of writers, and I do know that the more serious a writer is, the more married they are not simply to their words but to their ideas. A central character in a novel is an idea the novelist wants to play out. When Lee changed her idea of Atticus Finch, simplifying and idealizing him, I don't know whether she felt she was finding her character or losing him. At any rate, when we do as we're told we don't always like it, and sometimes the resentment hangs on no matter what the results. 

The Tribune tells us that over the half century after Mockingbird became a "phenomenal success" Lee "turned down every interview request" and on the book's 50th anniversary agreed to answer questions only if they weren't about the book. What reviewers wondered when Watchman came out was whether its famously guarded, reclusive author actually wanted this flawed and perplexing manuscript to see the light of day. Had she, in her old age, been manipulated by associates who recognized a gold mine?

Again, I'm only speculating as to what was really going on inside Lee’s head. But to me the publication of Watchman has the earmarks of setting the record straight. No one wants to die misunderstood. It's believable to me that Lee found it awkward to bask in acclaim for a Mockingbird that wasn't the story she set out to tell and whose Atticus Finch wasn't the character she set out to write. Maybe generations of white kids grew up somewhat more earnest and idealistic thanks to their early encounters with Mockingbird's Atticus Finch—making it the height of ingratitude for her to ever complain about him. But that Atticus Finch, like the Reverend Josiah Grey before him, was a pretty idea. Lee's first-draft Atticus was a more mature literary creation, a complicated and credible southerner. 

As the movie version of Stars in My Crown comes to its climax, the local Klansmen gather at the door of Josiah Grey, demanding he hand over the black farmer they intend to lynch because they want his land. OK boys, Grey says, but first I think I ought to read his will. And holding some papers on which nothing is written and winging it, he improvises a will so good-hearted and generous to these same Klansmen that they bow their heads in shame and shuffle away into the night.

I'm not saying the scene isn't powerful. When I finished the book at the age of 11 or 12 my eyes were probably misty and I probably was thinking, I want to be a a brave and upright white man just like him! If Harper Lee, near the end of her life, decided to tell the world she didn't become a writer to flog the same medicine, I don't blame her. 

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