My take on "Go Set a Watchman"

By Suzy Barile

Poor Harper Lee. No matter how hard she tried, no one would leave her alone! Each declined invitation -- sometimes politely, sometimes filled with exasperation at not being left alone -- merely underscored her desire for solitude. She lived as anonymously as she could in New York City, returning to Monroeville, Ala., only occasionally. And why not? My daughter lives in California, and like Lee, gets home once, maybe twice a year. She is, in fact, the same age as Lee was when she penned "To Kill a Mockingbird," and in the midst of her career, as was Lee.

I note these similarities to make a point: Lee was a young woman in late 1950s/early 1960s America -- women were supposed to be wives and mothers, yet she was attempting to "make it" as a writer -- when suddenly she was thrust into the limelight as the author of an award-winning -- Pulitzer-winning --novel. How does one handle that? She declared in an interview a couple of years later,

"I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hope someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

Just because someone produces an astounding work doesn't mean that person wants notoriety, yet she has now lived 60% of her life in that unwanted realm. And whether her lawyer "discovered" an old/new manuscript, whether Lee is fully capable of making decisions about publication of the manuscript, whatever background there is to its publication, it is with us for better or for worse.

Not wanting to wait until Aug. 4 to receive my pre-ordered copy of "Go Set a Watchman, (really, Amazon? 2 weeks after publication?!?!), I bought it for my Nook. I had no expectation other than hoping to read a good story. I did not re-read "TKAM," nor did I read any reviews. What I found is that much of Chapter 1 and all of Chapter 19 reminded me of a researched essay a student once turned in: the beginning and ending were my student's work, but the middle belonged to someone else.

My gut is that someone fiddled with the beginning and ending of Lee's work -- thinking that was making it better? Maybe more 21st century? Who knows? The giveaway for me is the overuse of the word "thing" -- my writing bugaboo. It appears 4 times in Chapter 1 -- twice in ways Lee used in the past, but twice that are questionable. In "TKAM," the word "thing" is used 7 times. In five of her essays written after the publication of "TKAM," the word appears 4 times in 7,000+ words. There's also overuse in "Go Set a Watchman" -- particularly Chapter 1 -- of the words "anything," "something," "everything," and "nothing." Again, these are not words Lee used regularly in her writing.

But the middle -- oh! the middle! It is pure Harper Lee, from the long paragraphs and formal English, from the literary and religious references, to her personal take and thoughts on 1960s America and Civil Rights -- that had to be hidden in a metaphor: "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I think her agent found "Go Set a Watchman" too in-your-face for an early 1960s audience, and suggested she tone it down, take a different approach, which she did, and that became "TKAM." But the feelings Lee held about what was happening in the South are expressed beautifully and voraciously - so I vote that this "new" book is her handiwork and I enjoyed it immensely!

1 comment:

Kestrel said...


just found this blog and your twitter account. My wife descends from the Swains of Swain, AR, which ultimately from Nathaniel Swain of Nantucket / Greensboro. Her family lore says she is related to Gov. Swain, although I haven't found the connection yet. We will be looking at your stuff with interest.

Steven and Shirley