RENUKA VISWANATHAN | 3 NOVEMBER, 2015
The Fact Of Fiction
‘Go set a watchman to kill a mockingbird’
First novels are generally autobiographical and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is more autobiographical than most. Its setting, characters and both its narrative strands can be easily traced back to known places and events and living persons. Maycomb County of the novel is Monroeville in Alabama where the author grew up, the six year old narrator Jean-Louise (Scout) Finch is the novelist herself as a child, the major protagonists are members of her family, household and friends and the host of interesting minor personalities part of her southern community. Thus, behind the clear local habitation and name of this work of fiction lies the shadowy world of Southern mores, hypocrisies and racism, which denied the political and social equality of the blacks in its midst, even while it outwardly extolled the virtues of brotherhood and justice.
For more than a half-century after its publication, we knew very little about Harper Lee’s own attitude towards her surroundings, apart from what we learn from the novel itself, because she led a reclusive existence, wrote no other works of fiction and did not comment on current affairs or the overwhelming public response to her novel. Early this year, however, the silence was broken when the first version of the novel, written as long back as 1957, was released under its original title Go Set a Watchman. As Scout is a twentysix year old adult in this book, we now have a fuller version of the fictional story. We are able to identify the principal focus of the book and understand the author’s own response to her southern upbringing. We have a fascinating glimpse of the creative process and the choices made by the author while transmuting the dross of lived experience into the gold of literary success. And we get clues to the elusive magic of the novel, that explain its abiding popularity with the reading public.
Since both her books mine the same seam, they need to be read together for a rounded picture of the fictional narrative. Three themes converge in To Kill a Mockingbird-social satire focused on the quirky life styles and amusing characters of southern small towns, the loss of innocence and growing-up pains and exposure of the blind spots and covert racism of the white southerner. With Go Set a Watchman now available, it is clear that Harper Lee was not planning to write a social commentary. The growing up process is also seen to be far more prolonged than To Kill a Mockingbird seems to indicate.
In Go Set a Watchman, we see Scout in the painful terminal phase of her growing up, when she discovers her father’s perfidy, directly confronts his “moral double-dealing” and ends up accusing him of being a “despot, Hitler and a ring-tailed son of a bitch”. In the process, with some plain speaking from her Uncle Jack, she breaks free of Atticus’s overpowering influence and learns how “her conscience and his must part company” if she chooses to stay among her own people. On the theme of southern racism, Scout moves forward from merely sensing adult hypocrisy and questioning her elders in To Kill a Mockingbird to open rebellion in Go Set a Watchman. She wakes up to the realization that, unlike other townspeople, she was born “colour-blind”, that no legality or argument regarding State’s rights can divert her from the mission of applying the Christian message taught from the pulpits of Maycomb to blacks as well as whites and that she is all alone in this quest.
Harper Lee used the same palette of personalities to paint her picture in both novels, although there are interesting additions and omissions and significant variations in Scout’s reactions to at least two major characters. Lawyer and senator, Atticus, the idolized father looms over the value systems and happenings of To Kill a Mockingbird; he is the hero, who can do no wrong, to defend whose principles, Scout rushes in fists flailing, and whose aphorisms govern her life, despite his failure to successfully defend Tom Robinson, the innocent black man accused of rape or change the illegal and unjust attitudes of the white population of Maycomb.
While some members of the family, like Aunt Alexandra and even Uncle Jack, run true to type in both books, Scout (and Lee’s readers who have built up their notions from reading To Kill a Mockingbird) receive two rude surprises in Go Set a Watchman. Atticus, it appears, is not who he seemed to be in the first book; Scout’s discovery of how she had misjudged him and endowed him with her own “colour blindedness”, sense of justice and humanity is the central theme of Go Set a Watchman. The second shock is Scout’s discovery of the real feelings of Calpurnia, the black housekeeper, towards the family she had tended so affectionately for so long. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Calpurnia is the rock on which the Finch household is built, the person whom Atticus trusts totally to bring up his motherless children, who they are exhorted to “mind” even when they do not want to, who once takes them to the African church for Sunday mass and who seems to echo and accept the views of Atticus and the more sensitive whites when the Tom Robinson case is under trial. She is the epitome of the “contented slave”, devotedly bringing up the “massa’s” children depicted in many southern narratives. In Go Set a Watchman, Scout is devastated to discover from Calpurnia’s use of “company manners” and other telling indicators that the black woman had never really agreed with the ideas of the family of her white employer; this is the final straw that tears apart her life and shows her how hollow the world she had imagined was.
Given the autobiographical nature of Harper Lee’s fiction, there is an irresistible temptation to assume that she was perhaps putting her own experiences and emotions into fictional form. When we juxtapose the story of Scout (known to be the author herself) with the known facts of the novelist’s life, there is surprising correspondence in several significant areas. Her father Amasa Coleman Lee, like Atticus, was a lawyer, legislator and public figure, her brother Edwin died young like Jem, she shared childhood experiences with and cherished the companionship of Truman Capote (the Dill of the book) who followed his literary vocation outside the south, she had an incapacitated mother and was for all practical purposes motherless. There are also close parallels for the two interwoven tales of To Kill a Mockingbird in known events of Monroeville and its environs-the Tom Robinson trial echoes other patently unjust verdicts handed out by juries in southern cities and the odd case of the Radleys matches the behavior of a close neighbor of the Lees, who had confined his son indoors for several years, following a legal mishap. From Go Set a Watchman, we now know beyond a doubt that the novelist held advanced radical notions about the treatment of blacks as far back as 1957, in sharp contrast to most southern whites.
From all this, can we extrapolate other key events of the two novels into Harper Lee’s own life story? Was there a Hank, whom she once proposed to marry, but did not because she could not accept his covert racism? –she has certainly never married. Can counterparts be found for Aunt Alexandra, Uncle Jack and, above all, Calpurnia among members of the author’s household? And why do some major participants in her own life, like her sister and close confidante Alice, not figure at all in either book? If, as seems likely, Harper Lee’s views were those of Scout in Go Set a Watchman, were the novels the means by which she exorcised her own demons?
To this day, To Kill a Mockingbird and its creator remain surprisingly under researched. The Wikipedia entry about the book cites the finding of Don Noble that the ratio of sales to analytical essays about the novel is as high as one million to one-many have read the book but very few have criticized it. With Go Set a Watchman before us and reports about Baltimore, Ferguson and other places ringing in our ears, devoted fans of Harper Lee (I included) are keen to know more about her own life and thinking. What we look forward to is a candid autobiography or at least a well rounded biography, authorized or not, to fill the gaps in our understanding.
We also seek answers to an intriguing question-what induced Harper Lee to put aside the first fictional transcript of her mental conflict of Go Set a Watchman, and make the transition to the far more engaging and popular version in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her own explanation for why Go Set a Watchman was reworked into To Kill a Mockingbird is that she had simply followed the guidance of her editor to rewrite the book from the point of view of the young Scout. What happens between editors and authors is, nonetheless, a grey area and in this case, we may have to wait till the definitive story is told by either of them or by a biographer. The differences between the two books are, however, before us if we seek clues to the alchemy behind the writer’s craft.
Go Set a Watchman is no patch on To Kill a Mockingbird in literary and popular appeal. If this method of treating the common themes of the two books had been the first to appear before the reading public, the novel might have received a few lukewarm reviews and then dropped out of sight and literary memory for all time , and Harper Lee would have remained another unknown, very minor story writer of the late fifties. The changes wrought by her in the structure, plot and telling of the tale in To Kill a Mockingbird made the telling difference not just between mediocrity and success as a novelist but between mediocrity and a permanent place on the bookshelves and in the hearts of readers. The most obvious change is the shift from the third person observer-narrator of Go Set a Watchman to the first person storyteller, Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird. Movements in time are also differently handled-Go Set a Watchman shifts back and forth, playing off Scout’s current disappointments against flashbacks of childhood memories; the reader, moving between time periods, cannot remain totally immersed in the idyllic past and regret its passing. To Kill a Mockingbird, on the other hand, simply picks up the narrator (who is clearly speaking as an adult) and drops her into the past; Scout becomes once again a rebellious, curious, trusting and loyal six year old, enjoying the delights of the summer, with her father as moral lodestar. Throughout the book, she never reverts to the present, save for a few slight hints at the very end. This enables the novel to retain the consistent mood and tenor of childhood and we too, like Scout, revel in the sights and sounds of long lost summers.
It is interesting to note that the author has not retained any of the childhood episodes of the first version of the book, put into Go Set a Watchman, in the final version in To Kill a Mockingbird. This is partly because the former book is focused on an older Scout so that memories of growing up misadventures can be typically drawn from adolescent experiences. But Scout’s recollection of her first dance or the amusing description of how she learned the facts of life in Go Set aWatchman simply leave us cold-they cannot compare with the allure of the childhood mishaps and games with which To Kill a Mockingbird abounds. Even where Go Set a Watchman goes further back in time to conjure up the story of the younger Scout, Jem and Dill, caught imitating their preacher in a manner reminiscent of the pranks of To Kill a Mocking Bird, the appeal is missing. Perhaps the skilful weaving of the Boo Radley motif into the narrative thread of To Kill a Mockingbird holds the key to creation of the ambience of carefree childhood which suffuses this book and is at the heart of its amazing success. And then again, Go Set a Watchman is somehow too passionate, too close to its subject, too explicit about its intentions; To Kill a Mockingbird is more distanced and less forthcoming about its moralistic underpinning. Which , in another sense, is also where it loses out to Go Set a Watchman.
For all its seductive allure, the criticism leveled against To Kill a Mockingbird is that it is not harsh enough-it lets off the hypocritical supporters and perpetrators of covert racism and provides alibis for Atticus’s inaction and collaboration with them. From Go Set a Watchman, we know now how passionately the author disagreed with such views and attitudes, before she had written To Kill a Mockingbird. But the fury voiced in Go Set a Watchman, or even part of it, has not been imported into the book that she first published-To Kill a Mockingbird. There are several possible explanations. Her long silence regarding the themes of the book and her refusal to confront her critics suggest that she had deliberately pruned her rhetoric in the final fictional version, so that she could continue to live and work among people with whom she had little in common and avoid causing hurt and disharmony in dealing with family and friends. The same misplaced sense of loyalty could have hampered her from talking explicitly to critics and readers about what she had hinted at in her novel. This might well explain why she had toned down the fury of Go Set a Watchman to the more soothing murmur of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Even the timing of the publication of Go Set a Watchman would now seem to be significant. Was the author waiting for persons who could be hurt or offended by her criticism to pass beyond the veil? Or it might be that happenings all over the country and in the south itself have finally reached a level of awareness in which it is at last possible to mention the unmentionables and point fingers at those who had once been bigoted and cruel. We can imagine what would have happened to the novel To Kill a Mockingbird if it had adopted a more strident stance. It would no longer have become what it is today-the narrative of childhood innocence that has captivated the world; a harsher and more pitiless reality would have made us wince, not sigh nostalgically.
From the technical point of view, however, this creates a structural flaw in To Kill a Mocking Bird, which becomes evident on closer reading; we end up wondering why the narrator , who was clearly an adult recollecting the happenings of her coming-of-age summer, is so muted in her criticism; she never demands why her father Atticus, the legislator and political leader, accepted defeat so easily in the Tom Robinson case and did nothing to enforce the spirit of federal laws that guaranteed equal justice for blacks. These are indeed the two questions that the adult Scout raises in her strident disagreement with the same Atticus in Go Set a Watchman (she finds him both a “nigger-hater” and a “coward”). And the absence of these motifs in To Kill a Mockingbird raises doubts about the nature and finality of the growing-up process that is the purported theme of the novel.
If To Kill a Mockingbird was meant to hold up a mirror to the hypocrisies of society, the glass reveals a softened and kinder picture. And this seems to be the only view that we, the reading public, are prepared to see and accept. The wise editor, who advised Harper Lee on how to rewrite the book, knew that people tolerate pictures of their warts only up to a point.
We love To Kill a Mockingbird also because it is easy to empathize with Atticus. We can consider ourselves heroes like him, when we have fought only part of our battles, when cowardice, misguided loyalty to family and friends or sheer fatigue prevent us from going the full hog to stand by our principles, no matter the cost. The publication of Go Set a Watchman has ripped away that fig leaf and thrust us into cold reality. This is the bad book that Harper Lee wrote but dared not publish or defend, which she replaced with the more “acceptable” To Kill a Mockingbird, with its alibis for inaction and explanations for cowardice.
Every Harper Lee fan must also now face up to the compromises we have made and continue to make in our own lives on matters of principle. We must recognize that, like Atticus and Harper Lee, we too are hypocrites when we close our minds and eyes to cruelty and injustice. We are cowards when we put loyalty to family and community ahead of our duty to humanity at large. We are liars when we betray the clear cry of conscience and wait for the world to change instead of striving to change it ourselves.
This is the unbearable truth that I too must face after reading Go Set a Watchman. I have read and reread To Kill a Mockingbird several times; but knowing now what Harper Lee wished to say and avoided saying in this novel, I may never be able to return to it again.