My thoughts regarding “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

Harper Lee Go Set A Watchman

It made me laugh and it made me cry, it broke my heart and then pieced it together again. It was an intense read—it is a human document containing all the ugliness and beauty of the human experience. Bittersweet—that’s the word I’m looking for— it is bittersweet—to learn after years of believing there was only one book—that Nelle wrote the one and stopped there—so, learning about the existence of Go Set a Watchman was a heady joy only to have the ratty controversies and negativity disrupt what should be happy news. The cynical part of me crawled out from where it hides and sparked, “No duh, that’s a no brainer—upon such a discovery, the publisher would ram it though doing the least amount of effort possible as this is clearly a bestseller—just add a book cover with Harper Lee’s name on it, it will sell itself…even if it isn’t any good people will buy it because a second book by Harper Lee is the biggest literary event this century.”

Is that cynical or what? It happens to the best of us. I’ve gotten to a point in my life when I’ve seen and heard much too much—it’s enough to make me drop an F-bomb before 8AM on a daily basis—I’ve become “well-seasoned” by life, so I come by it honestly.

The money grubbing mentality that is implied on the part of the lawyer, the agent, the publisher—the varied enthusiasm and outrage about Nelle’s ability to make a decision without her sister at her elbow advising is uncomfortable and messy. Then, finally, the book is out, and so began the spoilers on headlines the first day after its release—Oh! Oh! Oh! Me-first-me-first, let me tell all before everybody else gets a chance to read it! Since I knew this sort of thing would happen, I steered clear of the news and reviews until I read it—and still, there are people fussing—a variety of fuss—pick your poison. Honestly, it makes me want to spit the bad taste out of my mouth—my Fred said, “Just read the book.”

…and so now that I’ve gotten that shaken out, I can talk about this beautiful thing—a book by Harper Lee. It took me a long time to decide to enter the fray with my thoughts—I wanted to do it right. Long awaited? No, longed for—because I always felt that she had more to say. Unexpected? Well, yes, in the way that it was wished for, but I never expected the wish to come true. I was good with that, though I’ve always felt cheated that she didn’t continue to write more—but yet, I completely understood why not—the expectations of others, the pressure to perform—the judgmental critics making their noises—sometimes praise can sound just as derisive as scorn. It’s a feat of bravery for a writer to stick their neck out and be read—and after the overwhelming success of To Kill a Mockingbird it’s easy to imagine her not wanting to deal with the nonsense, the celebrity worship weirdness that drives our popular culture. After witnessing the three-ring circus fuss since February—I can’t say that I blame her. Tho’ it does sadden me that she may have cheated herself of fulfilling those things within her that she never let out.

I have to wonder what Nelle thought when the first copy of Watchman was placed into her hands, I imagined she’d say—“Well, hello old friend, long time no see.” It had to be a reunion of sorts, after so many years. It doesn’t surprise me that Go Set a Watchman came first, that it is the “parent” of To Kill a Mockingbird, which was a more mature, thoroughly composed book. Second books usually are because the writer has learned from the first one—the metaphor having to do with the raising of children comes to mind—the second child gets a different experience than the first. There’s something special about the first fully realized manuscript—the “first born”. For me, personally, there is an emotional attachment to the first manuscript of a completed work—it is raw and full of the passion of a first love, and it’s sentimental. This sort of feeling does not belong to one of those false starts scribbled down and fretted over in the heat of the moment—those are ephemeral and disjointed fragments with very little traction to develop into something larger—I’m talking about the first completed manuscript with a beginning and an end and threads of related shit happening in the middle. This is something that took a great deal of time to accomplish, months, years—who knows. There’s investment—I don’t even like that word, because of the financial implication because it’s more than that. Of course, when one sets out to be a writer, part of that is to want success, to be self-supporting, but then there’s that other thing writers and all artists have—the desire to do. Do it all. Make it so. Write it because it has to be written. If you don’t you’ll regret it later. Go Set a Watchman contains Nelle’s endeavor to write about something that matters. From that first manuscript came To Kill a Mockingbird —she had what so few editors/ publishers do anymore, investment in the individual writer to nurture talent. Mockingbird may have never come into being if she didn’t get that extra push to turn her attention to Scout’s past and the deeper story that she had lingering in between the events in Go Set a Watchman. It gives me the chills thinking—to now read the first page or two of Mockingbird, I get the feeling that this version of Scout is even older than the one in Watchman, and Atticus is gone.

Before I set out on my journey, I always keep in mind that every book is different—the same writer, different book. Watchman being the foundation to Mockingbird is what it is—the first book, the ground zero of things to come. I enjoyed every page—savoring it—I spent a good part reading on the front porch (too hot to do anything else by noon) and other times, I read it before going to sleep at night. There were surprises (in spite of the unsurprising spoiler headlines that I mostly ignored.) It was kind of funny that I was reading Harper Lee and Joyce Carol Oates (Mudwoman) during the same week—both books are intense in their own way—both authors have been the inspiration for me to become a writer. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened, and then I started to read my own book Dusty Waters on the Nook for something to read on my lunch hour at work. (I know, how narcissistic can you get, right? Reading your own shit and loving it—what the fuck.) It seemed appropriate in a way to compare and contrast and to be caught up in a conjunction of words and inspirations, and holy shit—I thought my head was going to pop off my body because it was a little too intense some of the time…

Is it Mockingbird revisited? In a sense, sort of—but it stands on its own well enough—I had to forget Mockingbird because when this book was written, there was no To Kill a Mockingbird, and I could see that right away. First in line is Atticus. Gregory Peck will forever be the iconic, beloved figure of Atticus Finch, there’s no escaping that stunning Hollywood image—so pitch perfect. It hurt my heart to imagine that he’s going to be found out—and I had to ask myself, how is Scout going to come back from this? I reread Mockingbird during the wait for Watchman to come, and I watched the movie (twice) and after such immersion I knew how Watchman was going to go down—because every child learns eventually that their parents are not gods—they are people—humans. Suddenly we wake up and realize they are not perfect (tho’ some learn that early—every household is different.) Atticus, oh Atticus—you couldn’t remain this wise, thoughtful man—flawless in every way? No. Scout—well, Jean Louise—she was bound to find out that you are what you are—a man named Atticus Finch, a human being—still wise and thoughtful, only with human flaws. He is not a god, and it is terrible to go through life believing in someone only to have them disappoint you—your dream of them is not their reality.

Change—part of growing up is accepting change. That small town called home changes the moment you leave it—the comfort zone is now uncomfortable—so much of our innocence is lost the moment we depart the nest. I grew up in a small town, an old Erie Canal town, another tired old town that had its day once upon a time, and now its struggling to remain relevant in the contemporary world where everything changes with the latest gadget in hand. All that is left is sentimentality for the sounds and smells of home—but you can’t go home and expect it to be the same. Parents grow old and die. Buildings get knocked down, new ones are raised in their place. Life goes on—if you do go home, it’s to bring something with you to build upon the foundation left behind—one lesson learned, nothing is static.

“Bigot,” she read. “Noun. One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.” (page 267)

Regarding the disagreeable subject of bigotry—it’s not just about Atticus being a bigot, it’s about Scout’s being her own version of a bigot, and then going a step further, looking at the big picture, ours—like it or not, we’re all bigots—human nature has this natural suspicion of “the other”. We come up against someone we don’t agree with, someone we feel threatened by, we don’t give ground, we will not bend to compromise, and what’s worse, we won’t listen—then we do everything we can to try to get it out of our sight and stamp it out of existence. (Our way or the highway!) What I’m saying is this—no matter how self-righteous, exclusive, or squeaky-clean you think you are—you’re still a bigot (perhaps a “turnip-sized bigot”) when it comes to protecting your own from the other that is “not like me.” I’m sorry, is there someone different from you threatening your ideas—your ideals of how things should be in the world of you? Get over it. Our country is getting way too fucked up by this shit—if there’s any lesson to learn in the treasure of Watchman—that’s a big one just to start. Scout had to learn it. We all do. If we don’t learn to get on with one another, acknowledge our differences without shaming or censoring or going to war over perceived insults, then to put it bluntly—we are fucked.

After I read the last page, I wished for more—because Nelle clearly had so much more going on—so much more. Rumors of a third book make me squirm on an uncomfortable fence with anticipation—more fuss, more controversy, more dredging up negativity, and of course, the implied third-party greed. If a third book does emerge—I’ll read it like I read this one, and I will grow from the experience.

I want you to read it—love it or hate it on your own terms.