SPOILER ALERT! MY POST IS ABOUT GO SET A WATCHMAN BY HARPER LEE.
“Fill your paper with breathings of your heart.” — William Wordsworth
An open letter to Harper Lee:
Dear Ms. Lee,
I guess I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, and over time, I’ve taken it off my shelves and have sunk into the story again and again. My kids read it; I loved that my daughter loved it. For a couple of years, we teachers pushed our advanced eighth graders into the freshman curriculum, and so I had the privilege of introducing the book to a new batch of teenagers.
Like so many others, I was intrigued by the news that an unpublished manuscript of yours had been found and was to be published. I learned that the story, written before TKAM, featured Scout as a young adult, and that the manuscript had been locked away. How could I resist a chance to read it?
At midnight on Tuesday, I was clutching my copy of Go Set a Watchman. Anderson’s Bookshop, our local indie, hosted a book launch at a beautiful old movie house, the Tivoli. The evening included a panel discussion on To Kill A Mockingbird, some TKAM trivia, and then the movie TKAM. When the credits rolled precisely at midnight, we book geeks filed out and received our Go Set a Watchmans.
I approached GSAW with equal parts curiosity and trepidation. Would it measure up? It won’t be perfect, I told myself. It was a first attempt at her novel, after all. But what would Scout be like as an adult? What about Jem? Dill? and Atticus? I avoided reviews, but with media hoopla everywhere, I spotted Huffpost‘s “Et tu, Atticus?” headline. Damn. Atticus a racist? No way, I assured myself. I dove in.
So, Ms. Harper Lee, I want to thank you. No, not for writng GSAW. Frankly, I found it to be less than wonderful. I’m sure you know that. There is scant plotline, a lot of heavy-handed dialog laced with didacticism, and yes, that side of Atticus I never wanted to see. Yet, there are lovely glimmers of beautiful prose throughout the story. I was drawn into the dusty streets of Maycomb when Scout thinks back on getting her period, or playing Tom Swift with Jem and Dill, or going to her first high school dance. I cared about the young Jean Louise, and her brother, her father, Calpurnia, and Dill. How wise your editor was to suggest that you tell your story through young Scout.
Thanks for listening to your editor. Thanks for writing that much, much better story, the one I’ve cherished for years. It must have been painful to face your editor’s criticism, to start over. Maybe you had grown weary of Atticus and Scout. Maybe you felt like you’d poured all you had into GSAW. Maybe you cried, screamed, despaired, or sank yourself into one heck of a pity party. But then, you pulled up your desk chair, rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter carriage, and went at it again. You persevered. And when you did, you created a place and a time I’ve visited time and time again, and a story that lives within me. I am richer for having known the Finches, the Cunninghams, the Ewells, Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson.