By Harper Lee
Every story has a first draft. Something on paper that places a fictional world into reality.
I recently completed the audiobook of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, performed by Reese Witherspoon. This novel, really a draft by Harper Lee, is a fascinating specimen for writers to see the growth of novels and how they develop into fully-formed stories. It also gives me confidence in my own abilities. If Harper Lee can pull out the beauty of To Kill a Mockingbird from this novel, then anything is possible.
The root of the story is the same: a young girl coming of age in the South. She just happens to be 26 and reflecting on her childhood, rather than a child and experiencing those moments in real-time. This slight difference in perspective completely changes the story, despite many characters and some events being the same. However, I agree with her original editor, Tay Hohoff, that the submitted manuscript was more of a series of anecdotes than a fully-fleshed out novel. Harper Lee introduced Jean Louise a stubborn character with many good convictions that she picked up from her time in New York and from her father, a father who she learns is not everything she believes him to be. However, the story has many incidences of “telling” what happened rather than “showing” what happened. This is something many authors, including myself, struggle with in first, second, and maybe even third drafts.
I haven’t read many reviews about Go Set a Watchman, but I have heard in passing that people were outraged by Atticus and his beliefs. His perspective does not surprise me based on where he lives and his occupation. Jean Louise learns the hard way that humans–even hardworking fathers–cannot be perfect gods. Atticus and Jean Louise butt heads because she is realizing their social ideologies are not perfectly in sync anymore. Atticus tells Jean Louise that they actually aren’t that different. They have similar goals, but different understandings on how to achieve those goals. Jean Louise gets angry with him because she is too focused on her own perspective and not willing to listen and visualize the world through her father’s eyes. Atticus, on the other hand, has already learned the art of listening. He listens to everyone, regardless their beliefs. He even says, “hypocrites have just as much right to live in this world as anybody.” This statement to me felt like an acceptance of all people, regardless of his personal view or bias, and reflected the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite that statement, I do see that he is not the same Atticus we grew up with. His views are different than those expressed in Lee’s originally published novel, but he is made more human in this version and, to me, that is beautiful.
Overall, this is not a fantastic novel. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books and this falls short of that brilliance. As a writer, I am pleased it was published so I could see how Harper Lee transformed her draft into the final publication.