Go Set a Watchman arrived a few days ago. My usual behavior upon the delivery of a new book is to unwrap it, open it and then lean against the kitchen counter reading the first pages. Try as I do to put the book down unopened, I rarely succeed.
I have read first chapters while loading the dishwasher, while dumping dog food into Lucy’s bowl, while picking up morsels of dog food from the floor around Lucy’s bowl and while walking out to get the mail. Like Stephen King walking along a country lane, I am weak in the face of a new book.
This one was different. My eagerness to read Harper Lee’s discovered manuscript was offset by empathy for the author. Having written stories, I understand the “kill the babies” rule of self-editing. This rule is the warning to authors to put aside all the words, phrases, descriptions, characters and even entire stories that “don’t work.” Would this book be an embarrassing one of those?
The goal of a writer is to self-edit to the best quality BEFORE anyone else reads the manuscript. Sometimes beautifully written passages must be deleted when the author recognizes that these streams of elegant description bog down the story. Sometimes it’s a character who appears then disappears into story-line oblivion leaving the reader to wonder, “Where the heck did Harry go?”
Often the rule requires pitching and starting over. Desk drawers and cardboard boxes in authors’ basements are full of these false starts. Wishful thinking declares that maybe these near-misses can be turned into gold with another look later.
The writer who types her stories onto a computer screen can hit the delete button before print. But mega-space in cloud storage is inevitably consumed by saved unpublishable pages which just might be resuscitated. It’s hard to kill those babies.
My concern was that Go Set a Watchman would be one of those babies, the less than perfect child which might be rehabilitated after a respite in time-out. And then forgotten by his mother.
I’ve read all the editorials, essays, reports and guesses written about the Eureka moment when the manuscript was discovered. I experienced the anticipation and fear of fan-let-down these articles have implied. I’ve heard that Harper Lee is happy, appalled, exhilarated, crestfallen, independent and senile. No wonder the poor woman has been reclusive since To Kill a Mockingbird.
I have now read the first 122 pages. I can understand why Ms. Lee chose (or was encouraged by her editor) to write To Kill a Mockingbird and to publish it first. The stories of young Scout, Jem and Dill are the highlights of Go Set a Watchman. The creation of Atticus, hero-father, has its foundation there. The crisis and necessary conflict in Go Set is the crumbling of the character of Atticus in his daughter Jean Louise’s eyes.
The reader who feels distress for a less-than-perfect-Atticus, a man of his times and town, must be reminded that saintly-Atticus, too, is a character, the creation of Harper Lee, not a real human being whom we worship then who disappoints.
We readers, including the posh reviewers whose word is gospel (in their own minds), don’t get to rewrite Harper Lee’s books to our personal delight. We couldn’t bring Jim Robinson back to life in To Kill a Mockingbird and we don’t get to beatify Atticus in Go Set A Watchman. But perhaps, for very different reasons, we do get to read them, all the way to the end, and weep.
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