Growing up with Harper Lee

I find it exciting when novels are front-page news, lead items on television news and the subject of long profiles on radio news programs. It reminds me that reading isn’t dead.

watchmanSo, of course I’ve been over the moon about “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s (maybe) lost novel that came out less than two weeks ago, and which I bought, hardcover — I can’t remember the last time I did that — and read already. Can’t remember the last time I bought a book that I read immediately, either.

I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in seventh grade, on my own, not as part of a class. I pulled it off the shelf in the junior high library only because I recognized the title. It’s one of the few books I can remember reading, but it wasn’t because I was so wrapped up in the story as it was me feeling I was growing up and reading a real live adult book. (Not much later, I had the same feeling reading, of all things, Sydney Sheldon’s “Bloodline,” which, if you know Sheldon, had me feeling a few other things as well. Of course, my parents had no idea what was in “Bloodline,” or I wouldn’t have been able to read it. They fully supported my reading of “Mockingbird.”)

I think I read it partly because it made the South look bad, and I could not stand the only Southern person I had really come into contact with–my fifth-grade teacher. We butted heads (what fifth-grader does that, I must have been a complete pain in the ass) about everything she did. Even supportive, teacher-y things earned her a look of disapproval or disdain from me. As I write that, I realize that’s not entirely true: She had enormous, freckled boobs which were on display prominently when she wore a particular low-cut green sweater. All the boys suddenly needed help from her when she wore that outfit because she either leaned over our desks, where we could glimpse the promised land, or because we could look at the decolletage while standing over her as she sat at her desk, addressing hastily formed questions from prepubescent boys.

So I was proud when I saw her again and told her I had read “Mockingbird.” I gave her a knowing look (seriously, I was a horrible child) meant to imply: “I know just what kind of stock you came from and, because I’m better than you, I was right to give you all the trouble I did.”

In the ensuing years, I’ve helped my children understand parts of “Mockingbird” as they read it for class and have known adults who say they reread it every year. Now I liked the book, but remember nothing except the broadest outlines of plot and character. I do, however, remember being surprised, about a third of the way through, that Scout was a girl. Who knew? I toyed with the idea of reading it again before I dove into “Watchman,” but I was too busy and I convinced myself it was a good choice because I didn’t want to be influenced by any feelings for “Mockingbird.” In addition, Lee wrote this novel first (allegedly) and it was meant to stand on its own, so why clutter up my mind with the novel that sprang from this one?

I think I’m droning on as I am because just about everything that has been written about this novel can be stumbled across in the news media without any effort. In fact, it’s an effort to not hear commentary, even if it’s just from others in a coffee shop. Here’s what I think.

Harper Lee is a lovely writer. She evokes a place (Maycomb, Alabama) and a childhood you can’t help but pine for. “Watchman” works best when Scout is reminiscing about her childhood there and the people who shaped her life. These scenes are heartfelt, often funny, and nearly poetic. But the story in “Watchman” is about a grown up Scout who still needs to do more growing up. She returns from New York on her annual visit to discover that both her ersatz fiance and her beloved father Atticus are members of a council designed to keep uppity blacks in their place until they stop being a “childlike” race and earn their right to vote.

Gulp.

Scout, now going by Jean Louise, is shocked and feels Maycomb, its people and, most devastating of all, her sainted father, are people she has misjudged horribly and, worse, have hidden their dark beliefs, effectively lying to her all her life.

Anyone who has gone away to college and returned to friends who did not, or has developed political views different from what they were taught at home will understand Jean Louise’s anger. With the arrogance of an educated youth, she can’t understand how people she loves could think as they do. Lost between New York (which doesn’t care a damn about her) and a Maycomb she has, she believes, outgrown, she lashes out. This series of increasingly fraught confrontations–with her fiance, her aunt, an uncle and, finally, her father–make the climax of the novel.

These conversations are long-winded and maddening (with her obtuse uncle), self-righteous (with her fiance) and downright embarrassing (with her father). Only a tender scene with Calpurnia, her beloved maid, rings sadly true. The characters pontificate in overly dramatic speeches, paragraph after paragraph, going in circles. Neither making a point the other acknowledges.

These confrontations are unsatisfying, mostly because 50 years on, no one can take the segregationist arguments at all seriously. Over the decades, even the veneer of reason has worn through those arguments and we see them for what they truly are.

That Lee took on the race issue in a novel written (ostensibly) in the 1950s was brave. But she was young and idealistic, and it shows when she tries to plumb greater depths. That said, this is an adult book that won’t likely appeal to seventh-graders or the people who choose what those seventh-graders read.

I keep making veiled comments about who wrote this novel and when. I’m going to assume as true the story about it being Lee’s first novel, which introduced her to someone who must have been an astonishingly perceptive editor. That editor pulled a few paragraphs out of this novel and inspired Lee to write that story in “Mockingbird,” which won her a Pulitzer Prize and the adoration of decades of readers. It’s curious that Lee had said she would never publish another novel, and that this book is “discovered” by her caregiver shortly after Lee’s sister (and lawyer and staunch defender) died. And, just saying, if that editor was so insightful, she could have easily turned this first draft into a meaningful novel. It’s all very hinky.

But curiously, the story behind its publication recalls themes in the novel regarding the actions–and more important the motives–of those who say they are acting in another’s interest.

Read it and take from it what you want to, even its just a few hours spent someplace you once knew and loved, but feel you’ve outgrown.

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4 thoughts on “Growing up with Harper Lee

  1. Anonymous

    I could see why the novel wouldn’t have made it had it been published first — there isn’t much in the way of “story” to it, unlike Mockingbird. Alone, it’s rather uninteresting. But as you said, in reflection of the first-second book, a good way to pass a few hours.

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  2. Anonymous

    Are the men in the south all windbags?Why, yes! At least in this story. You are right the best parts are when she is remembering her childhood. The novel is about growing up and finding out your parents and the relatives you looked up to are human and have failings that they have probably always had. I still love the way she writes, I don’t think that could have been faked.

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