CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | Waiting for "Watchman," and what it means - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD COMMENTARY | Waiting for "Watchman," and what it means for "To Kill a Mockingbird"

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I wish I could join in the excitement surrounding Tuesday’s publication of “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee. I have a healthy respect for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” because you’re supposed to respect it, there’s good reason to respect it. Everyone does.

I respect it. I don’t love it. I have my suspicions that it grew to such popularity and has enjoyed such primacy among books dealing with the subject of race because its hero is a white lawyer. I don’t say that to diminish it in any way, it just is. The book has never been out of print since its publication in 1960. Its popularity continues to grow. It speaks for itself.

Unfortunately, its author no longer does. Lee, who now is 89 years old and lives in a nursing home in Alabama, did not a single interview on her book or her life from 1964 till a brief talk with The New York Times in 2006. In public, she has been silent for decades, and therein begins my uneasiness with the entire venture.

“Go Set a Watchman” was written before “Mockingbird.” Reviews calling it a “new book” are incorrect. It is not new. It is quite old. The story goes that Lee submitted it for publication, then was advised to change the point of view, to the young girl, Scout. The title eventually went through two revisions.

But “Watchman” was the starting point. Because the story is new to us, and because the characters are 20 years older than they were in “Mockingbird,” it’s difficult not to view this novel and these characters in this latest work as extensions of who they were in the famous novel.

But in fact, if the story of this manuscript’s production is to be believed, the characters we find in “Mockingbird” actually grew out of this work, not the other way around.

That Atticus Finch is depicted in “Watchman” as a racist, has attended Ku Klux Klan meetings, that he says at one point to the adult Scout, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” has created no small amount of controversy even before the publication of the book.

But we can’t make the mistake of seeing this book as a sequel to “Mockingbird.” It is instead a precursor, a draft. Lee reworked the book at the suggestion of an editor, and when she switched the point of view of the story to the child Scout, the entire story changed. The new work that emerged was simpler, in some ways more powerful, and far more sure of its moral convictions.

“Go Set a Watchman,” the original title for “Mockingbird,” quotes the King James Version of the Bible, Isaiah chapter 21, verse 6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”The passage refers to the fall of Babylon, and the watchman delivers the news of its fall. The implication in this title is that a watchman is needed, someone to tell it like it is, to speak and live truth into the world.

Lee found her watchman. It was Atticus Finch. If an earlier rendition of his character as a racist tarnishes his place as a heroic figure to many, it would be unfortunate.

I’m not sure how to handle “Watchman.” Harper Lee isn’t speaking about it publicly. What I do know is that she had decades and decades during which she could have brought out this manuscript on her own, and she never did. It belongs, in my mind, as a piece of important reference material, but not on a par with the finished product.

I’m not big on these kinds of publications. I love Hemingway, but I had no interest in his posthumously published novels. I’ll admit to running out and buying Vladimir Nabokov’s posthumously-published “The Original of Laura,” but mainly because the novel was published using the hand-written note cards on which he wrote it.

These kinds of works can be instructive, but they are, in my mind, non-canonical, when it comes to considering the work of an author. What the writer meant to have published under his or her name, what the writer did publish under his or her name, those are the things that ought to carry the most weight.

Executives at Harper Collins insist that they have met with Harper Lee and that she very much wanted the book published. They also say that the manuscript received only light copy editing and has not been read by its author, who suffered a stroke in 2007. The State of Alabama Human Resources Department conducted an investigation into her condition to determine whether she could consent to the publication, but found any allegations into coercion “unfounded.” I remain uneasy about the whole situation.

I read “Mockingbird” after my senior year of high school, because I found it on a list of books one should have read before going to college. I blew through it and moved on. I never was asked to read it in college. I read it again recently, because I’ve found that I often have a better appreciation of things now that I’m older.

Clearly, it’s an enjoyable novel. That its narrator is a six-year-old who speaks with all the polish of an adult is a problem, but that polish is nice to read.

For those who love the novel, who are among the millions who buy it still, every year, I hope that “Watchman” will be useful as a resource, perhaps as an insight into Lee’s original thinking in writing it, or into the process of its creation.

The stir over its publication has been considerable. On the one hand it’s heartening that the publication of a book can cause so much excitement. On the other, I feel as if we’re anticipating the wrong book.

Sometimes I lament the lack of anything new in our movies and literature. Every film is a remake. Every idea from the past. I wonder if that hasn’t brought about the frenzy for anything connected to “Mockingbird.”

For my part, I prefer the work of Richard Wright (“Native Son” and “Black Boy), James Baldwin (“Go Tell It on the Mountain” and others) and Ralph Ellison ("The Invisible Man"). We don’t have to travel back to an old manuscript, we have Alice Walker and “The Color Purple.” We have Toni Morrison’s exquisite “Song of Solomon.” We have “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones.

Sometimes I worry that we keep teaching our children the same old books — though there’s nothing wrong with them — instead of giving them the best of what was written nearer to their own generation. If “Mockingbird” is an American Classic, those others are, and perhaps more, and certainly are more worthy of consideration than a long-forgotten first draft, even the first draft of a classic.

I worry that “Watchman” will be viewed as “Mockingbird” all grown up. But it’s just as likely that the exact opposite is true. No writer should be held to her first draft. “My whole life,” author John Irving said, “is an act of revision.” At the very least, perhaps one might claim that “Watchman” is “Mockingbird” as it was originally meant to be. But only the author, really, can tell us, and this one long since has maintained her silence.

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