While I was writing my previous post about Zadie Smith, a t-shirt that I’d ordered arrived in my mailbox. Though I don’t often wear graphic tees, this one wooed me just as the Southern women writers whose names it bears captivated me when I first encountered their writing. Zora & Eudora & Harper & Flannery.
In her essay on Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God, Zadie Smith writes:
This is a beautiful novel about soulfulness. That it should be so is a tribute to Hurston’s skill. She makes “culture”–that slow and particular and artificial accretion of habit and circumstance–seem as natural and organic and beautiful as the sunrise. She allows me to indulge in what Philip Roth once called “the romance of oneself,” a literary value I dislike and yet, confronted with this beguiling book, cannot resist. She makes “black woman-ness” appear a real, tangible quality, an essence I can almost believe I share, however improbably, with millions of complex individuals across centuries and continents and languages and religions. . .
Almost–but not quite. That is to say, when I’m reading this book, I believe it, with my whole soul. It allows me to say things I wouldn’t normally. Things like “She is my sister and I love her.”
Smith, Zadie. “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” Changing My Mind. Penguin, 2009. pp. 3-13.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, when Nathan Radley discovers that his brother, Arthur “Boo” Radley, has been leaving gifts for Jem and Scout in the knot-hole of a live oak tree, he fills the hole with cement. Some readers would like to entomb Go Set a Watchman in a similar fashion, troubled as they are by the timing of the novel’s publication—suspicious of the motives of Harper Lee’s estate trustee, Tonja Carter—and angered by the revelation of Atticus Finch’s bigotry.
When readers of Watchman learn along with Scout that Atticus not only opposes desegregation but was also once a member of the Klan, it’s more than we and the twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise can take. She says to her father, “You’ve cheated me in a way that’s inexpressible” (252), and we agree, wondering if Lee was cheated as well. Whatever the motives for its publication, the novel is here for us now, its appearance stopping us the way the knot-hole stops Scout and Jem. Rather than deeming Watchman’s arrival unwelcome, it serves us to examine the book with care, in particular the scene at the courthouse where Jean Louise secretly watches her father at a meeting of the Maycomb County Citizen’s Council. As Scout looks down at Atticus from the balcony, she remembers a very different scene twenty years earlier, one of her father “accomplish[ing] what was never before or afterwards done in Maycomb County: he won an acquittal for a colored boy on a rape charge” (109).
Reading that brief flashback, Harper Lee’s editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, realized what was only a five-paragraph summary could become the moral and structural center of the novel. Though he isn’t acquitted in Mockingbird, the unnamed defendant gains a name, Tom Robinson, an arm—in Watchman it was “chopped off in a sawmill accident” (109)—and, most importantly, his essential human dignity. After more than two years of revision, Harper Lee gave us the re-imagined Tom, and Maudie Atkinson, and Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and added to them Boo, who along with the rest of the Radley family is absent from Watchman. We know those characters and empathize with them because Lee, with the coaxing of a watchful editor, returned to them again and again, giving us people we can consider from their own points of view, whose skin we “walk around in” (32), as Atticus teaches young Scout to do.
Near the end of Mockingbird, Scout reflects on Boo’s gifts to her and Jem: “two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad” (253).
The least we can give Go Set a Watchman is our attention. It isn’t Harper Lee’s greatest gift to us, but it’s something more important in a way: it’s the apprentice work that gave life to the classic we love.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.
—. To Kill a Mockingbird. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. Print.