Friday, September 25, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman" and "To Kill a Mockingbird"

To Kill a Watchman, Or—Go Set a Mockingbird?
A Review of an American Classic and its Long-Lost…Relative
Anthony J. Elia ~ Revision September 24, 2015

Two months ago, Harper Lee’s “new” book Go Set a Watchman was released.  We all rushed to our local bookstores, or Amazon, or the public library, and got our copies.  My colleague, Nick Buck, and I acquired our copies along with new reprints of To Kill a Mockingbird and read these two volumes back-to-back.  We wanted to see the similarities and the differences; we wanted to know how much To Kill a Mockingbird had changed from the text of Go Set a Watchman, because there were stories in the media that Watchman was some sort of first or early draft of the Pulitzer winning novel.  In fact, Harper Lee herself made the claim that Watchman was Mockingbird’s “parent.”  So how far did the apple fall from the tree?

I first need to make a confession: this present review is not my first review of the two books, which I purposely reviewed as a pair.  In mid-July, I expanded my initial review of Watchman and Mockingbird, while I had intense conversations with Nick, who was also grappling with these novels, and wondered about the inconsistencies in the Atticus character.  Why did he change?  or DID he really change?  Was it something that could be reconciled within the narratives of both books?  Or was it merely something explicable as “oh, Harper Lee just changed her mind… no sense in looking for consistency?”  We also wondered who (or what) these books were about—Atticus, Scout, or someone/thing else?  In the search for answers, more questions arose.

My preliminary concerns and struggles with this book were about consistency.  We all love and demand consistency in our world, in our storybook characters, and in the lives of our favorite authors, even when we ourselves cannot have consistent lives—not even moderately consistent lives. 

So I wrote a review.  And it kept growing, because I had more and more to say, and by the time I thought I was done, the review was no longer a review.  It was nearly nine pages of exegesis.  I gave a plausible narrative arc to Atticus’ change, noting nuances in his behavior perhaps overlooked in Mockingbird, and referenced the rise of the NAACP in national politics in the 1950s, distinct from the 1930s.  I looked at the context of African-American scholarship in 1935, and the success of works published by W.E.B. DuBoise (like “Black Reconstruction in America”) that year.  I even analyzed the parallels between Mockingbird characters and their ancient Roman equivalents:  Titus Pomponius Atticus was Cicero’s best friend; and Calpurnia was the name of one of Julius Caeser’s wives.  But the more I thought about this, the less convinced I was that much of this mattered.  If any names mattered, they were ones like “Ewell” (a medieval spelling of “Evil” counterpoised with the “good” characters of the novel) and “Finch” (Harper Lee’s maternal family name).

Part of the debate I had with my colleague was about the authorship of Mockingbird.  And for both of us, we asked “How could the author of Watchman write Mockingbird?—they are so radically different books.”  The countless reviews of Watchman are really now a morass of speculation—to which, admittedly, I may be simply adding!  Fresh Air’s Maureen Corrigan called Watchman a mess, and I bristled.  There is a feeling that many Harper Lee fans don’t like hearing criticism about her or her books.  I think that’s true.  Yet, part of me wanted to agree—the book is a mess.  On the other hand, one could easily say, “well, it’s a very post-modern novel,” which may seem a cop-out for a poorly edited text, but nonetheless may be true.  It really is a post-modern (or “modernist” in literary terms) novel that basks in choppy style and erratic prose.  And that’s where an editor in the late 1950s, unimpressed with “modernist” literature, and knowing that it wouldn’t sell, saw a very rough draft, and not the next Finnegan’s Wake.   One of these editors, Tay Hohoff was on my radar, and I wanted to learn more about her.

The big change in my thinking about these novels came late in the summer, when I read half a dozen other books, which put my thoughts and these novels in perspective.  Two of these books were biographical (Charles J. Shields’ “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee” published in 2006; and Marja Mills’ “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee,” published in 2014).  The other books were When the Church Bell Rang Racist (1998) by Donald Collins, A Ministry to Man: The Life of John Lovejoy Elliott (1959) and Cats and other People (1973) by Tay Hohoff, and Between the World and Me (2015) by Ta-Nahisi Coates—the last of these, though indirectly related, is relevant to the racial themes of these novels.

In light of my readings, the authorship question returned.  The relationship between Harper Lee and Truman Capote came into view, while any speculation of his involvement was effectively dead.  Too many scholars had piled heaps of evidence against that, and I personally thought that Lee probably had more to do with writing Capote’s In Cold Blood, than the opposite.  In fact, Marja Mills points out that in the late 1970s, Lee was deep into writing an In Cold Blood-style book.  But apparently Lee became too involved in the project and felt in danger, due to the subjects she was researching, so she abandoned it.   Might this be the third book?   Speculations about her “other books” have continued to mount:  there are stories that there was a “middle book” between the plots of Watchman and Mockingbird, as well as the episode that Shields reports regarding a novel Lee wrote about deer hunting that was stolen out of her NYC apartment many years ago.  But even more curious is the nugget we get from Lee herself at the very end of Mills’ book.  It reads: “Nelle [i.e. Harper Lee] had told me over the years that she resented any speculation that her editor, Tay Hohoff, had a larger role in shaping the manuscript than she did, as Nelle saw it.  And the rumor that Capote wrote any of it was still infuriating, she made clear, and absurd,” (Mills 270). 

So Capote is off the table.  I buy that.  But what about Hohoff?  In some accounts, there are implications that Hohoff reworked Watchman into Mockingbird in a significant way, but these have never really been substantiated.  How significant?  Harper Lee says not significant at all.  But let’s back up a moment, and look at some evidence.  Lee called Watchman the “parent” of Mockingbird.  An archival revelation this summer at Columbia University showed manuscripts at its Rare Books and Manuscripts Library deposited by Lee’s publisher Lippincott in the late 1950s to be of two names—Watchman, deposited by chapter, then later crossed out and replaced with To Kill a Mockingbird (and we should note, the first title submitted to Lippincott was Atticus).  But these are two different books—today.  And clearly, these two books, as published, are vastly different not only in their emphasis on characters and character development, but style.  In many ways, Watchman is more raw, ragged, and honest than Mockingbird.  Reading about Harper Lee’s personality, I can see her penning Watchman, while Mockingbird seems out of character, almost pastoral and packaged in righteousness and goodness.  I’ll state emphatically, though, that I still believe she wrote both.  My question is how much did she change under the influence of Hohoff? 

I set out to read at least two Hohoff books, thinking I probably wouldn’t find anything.  But I was surprised by what I did find.  In the first pages of A Ministry to Man, Hohoff writes in a beautiful, bucolic, and sentimental prose, reminiscent of old country and farm life.  When I put it next to Lee’s description of Maycomb (specifically, two paragraphs) in the first chapter of Mockingbird it was startlingly similar.  What also struck me about Hohoff’s first chapter in this book was that these first pages deal with abolition, slavery, and race.  The book, a biography of John Lovejoy Elliot, is a story about a man, who found a hero in Abraham Lincoln, and become a founder and leader of the Ethical Culture Society.  The principles of this nation-wide society included morality, self- and social-reform, and educating youth as a primary goal in society.  Hohoff was finishing this book as a young Harper Lee gave her the manuscript of Watchman.  It is hard for me to believe that the world and moral character of John Lovejoy Elliott did not come into conversation.  In fact, I would suggest that Hohoff may have persuaded Lee to make Atticus more like Lovejoy Elliott in Mockingbird, than like her father, A.C. Lee, in real life, after whom Atticus was initially modeled.  In many ways, A.C. Lee was closer to the earlier Watchman Atticus, but ironically, became more like the Mockingbird Atticus and Lovejoy Elliot after the success of Mockingbird.  Did Hohoff have Lee read A Ministry to Man?  Did she say “Nelle, read this! and re-write?” 

When a new minister, Rev. Ray Whatley, preached in 1952 at the First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, and his sermons were focused on social justice and race, A.C. Lee was compelled to correct the minister.  He sat the preacher down one day after church and immediately declared “Get off the ‘social justice’ and get back on the gospel,” (Shields 123).  For Harper Lee’s father, church was the place to find God and seek salvation, not deal with mundane ideas of social justice.  He was part of the institutional racism that the church held onto in the early 1950s, and was part of the church administration that ultimately let Rev. Whatley go.  A.C. Lee was gradually changing during the Civil Rights era, and finally becoming a supporter of African-American rights under the influence of his daughters.   As for Atticus advocating for Tom Robinson, according to Shields, this was likely inspired by the 1933-4 case of Walter Lett, whose circumstances were similar to those described of Tom Robinson in Mockingbird

In another Hohoff book, Cats and other People, which was published just before her death in 1974, we get a memoir of animals in her life.  Though a simple and unassuming read, there are hints which bring me back to how Mockingbird took its shape—though the book was written after Lee’s novels, it conveys a descriptive youth and details that may have informed conversations between Lee and Hohoff during the editing process of Watchman/Mockingbird.  Ms. Hohoff’s father, like Lee’s, was an attorney, who helped labor unions; she mentions Sunday services at the Methodist church when she was a girl (though she was a Quaker); and her recall of her own childhood years seems like the pristine Mayberry of youth, shared with family, neighbors, and critters—like Scout’s Maycomb.  Reading this book was useful to gauge any similarities between Lee and Hohoff, but ultimately inconclusive. 

Other questions remained for me, though, and certain episodes kept me wondering why Harper Lee composed her work in the way she did.  Why, for example, was Jem undeveloped in Watchman, but a solid character in Mockingbird?  Or, why was Dill wandering in Italy in Watchman, as a passing thought, but a fixture in Mockingbird?  The answers may be simple, but not always satisfying.  Lee’s mother died the same summer as her son Edwin (Harper’s older brother, and model of Jem).  When discussing this with Nick, we wondered why Scout had her transformation in Watchman at the late age of 26, and not say, as an 18 year old experiencing the world outside for the first time.  But Lee herself was 25-6 at the time of this family tragedy and the moment she went out to write a soul-searching novel, which is what I think Watchman is.  It’s also the same age that Truman Capote (the model for Dill) goes off to Italy.  These real life occurrences and others (like the random rabid dog scene in Mockingbird, which was based on a real event in Monroeville in the 1930s) infiltrate Watchman and Mockingbird to represent a literary reality, and two distinct novels.   

We will likely never know the full extent that Hohoff played in reshaping Mockingbird, though I imagine the debates about these works will continue to unfold in new and unexpected ways.  I am glad that Watchman was published.  I think it may be considered somewhat unrefined, but I feel I understand most of what Lee was trying to convey.  It  also helped me to better understand Mockingbird.  Reading these other works—by Hohoff, Mills, and Shields—also gave me a better sense of the novels, their context, meaning, and influence.  I did mention two other books, by Collins and Coates, which I found helpful to understanding both Harper Lee and her world—Collins describes the systematic racism that was inherent in the Methodist churches in Alabama in the time leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, giving context to various scenes in both Watchman and Mockingbird; while Coates’ book is a manifesto, written as a letter to his son about what it means to be an African-American man in this country—and as Nick and I discussed, presents us with a perspective on why Tom Robinson makes the decisions he does before being killed. 

Watchman and Mockingbird highlight the problems and structures of racism in our society.  Both focus on Atticus, but each is more about Scout and the development of her awareness in the world.  At the same time, we might even suggest that Mockingbird is a mystery novel, in the style that Harper Lee admired and tried her hand at later on.  But perhaps there is another interpretation: Is the real protagonist Harper Lee and her elusive life story?  Or is it us—the readers and fans—who so desperately want to know who Harper Lee really is, what her motives were, and everything associated with these novels?  The true power of both of these novels is that for more than half a century after they were written, we are still debating the relevance of the ideas of Harper Lee.

Anthony J. Elia is director of CTS Library and Educational Technology.  He has led the “Dickens and Christianity” reading group at CTS since early 2014.  He has published widely in library science, theology, and music, including “An Unknown Exegete: Uncovering the Biblical Theology of Elizabeth Barrett Browning” and Damascus at Night: A Ballet for Orchestra about the Syrian Civil War.