“Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It’s like passing around samples of sputum.”
— Vladimir Nabokov
There is a good book buried somewhere deep within “Go Set A Watchman,” the recently unearthed manuscript by Harper Lee. And that book was “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
What’s left, published with lots of fanfare and fancy deckle-edged pages, is not a sequel. It’s not a new work. It very clearly contains numerous passages that were subsequently put to better use in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It is an inchoate jumble, illuminated only sporadically by flashes of Lee’s trademark wit.
The first chapter is almost pardonable. Reading it, I was a bit saddened to learn from the narrator that Jem had died in an offhand way before the action began.
But the more you read, the more you begin to suspect that this was deliberate on Jem’s part. He is well out of it. Jem clearly took one look at this thing and told his agent not to renew his contract. Jem, Boo Radley and Dill are all off somewhere now toasting marshmallows and thanking their stars that they are no part of this train wreck. “Look,” Jem is saying, “this book includes the phrase ‘she would have pondered over the meaninglessness of silent, austere beauty’ but not as a joke. Why is this being published? It’s not E. L. James.”
I read on Mashable someone making the desperate case that perhaps, this was a great act of trolling, and that by letting us publish something that is clearly, laughably, horribly bad, Harper Lee is teaching us not to worship her as a god? Which is — certainly one case. But is it really revelatory in any way that this great book was preceded by a lousy book? Most great books are.
“Go Set A Watchman” is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good, or even a finished book. For the first 100 pages it lacks anything that could even charitably described as a plot. Lee meanders around Maycomb with a returned, 26-year-old Scout, rambling like someone who has started to tell an old joke and thinks, incorrectly, that it will be improved by giving rich inner lives to all three men who walk into the bar.
Never mind the things that have happened to the characters in this version. Calpurnia, radicalized by the NAACP. (“She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks. She raised me, and she doesn’t care.”) Atticus, introducing racist speakers at Citizens’ Committee meetings. Scout, just sitting there and taking all of it, even when her Uncle Jack hits her in the face and then mansplains racism to her for pages and pages. (I hate that verb but it really applies here.)
Even subtracting the plot developments, the writing is laughably bad. Here is Scout’s spilled ice cream dripping. “It spread, paused, dribbled and dripped. Drip, drip, drip, into the white gravel until, saturated, it could no longer receive and a second tiny pool appeared. You did that,” Scout thinks angrily, to Atticus. “You did it as sure as you were sitting there.” That’s right, Atticus, you melted her ice cream. You horrible cretin, you.
Later she reflects. “Today is Monday, I’ve been home since Saturday, I have eleven days of my vacation left, and I wake up with the screamin’ meemies. She laughed at herself: well, it was the longest on record — longer than elephants and nothing to show for it.” Longer than elephants? What? Elephants don’t extend through time.
Some of the worst patches of writing come during a Coffee hosted for the young folks of Maycomb.
“You must be blind or something,” an acquaintance tells Scout, when she says she didn’t notice sitting next to “a great big fat Negro man” on the bus.
“Blind, that’s what I am. I never opened my eyes. I never thought to look into people’s hearts, I looked only in their faces. Stone blind… Mr. Stone. Mr. Stone set a watchman in church yesterday. He should have provided me with one. I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference.”
At this point I flung the book down and groaned audibly and I almost did not pick it back up even though I knew I had fewer than 100 pages to go.
The only good parts of this book are when Scout’s Uncle Jack gives his cat, Rose Aylmer, a lovingly prepared sardine on a cracker, then gives the cat vitamins from a dropper and Scout the same vitamins from the same dropper, but then he starts talking down to Scout about racism and the moment is ruined.
Then we flash back to a time Scout lost her false brassiere after a high school dance. Tonally, this is all over the place.
And Scout is not exempt from the plague of misguided thinking. At one point during a particularly heated argument, she compares Atticus to Hitler.”Hitler and that crowd in Russia’ve done some lovely things for their lands, and they slaughtered tens of millions of people doing ’em….”Atticus smiled. “Hitler, eh?” “You’re no better. You’re no damn better. You just try to kill their souls instead of their bodies.”
I’ve read better arguments in the comments section of a news article.
This argument culminates in Scout suggesting that we could fix the legacy of racism by having a special week where everyone treats each other with decency. (If she lived today, Howard Schulz would put her in charge of everything.) Finally she storms off and decides to return to New York.
But first her uncle hits her, gives her a stiff drink, and mansplains racism to her one more time.
“He’s crazy, all right,” Scout thinks, “like every fox that was ever born. And he knows so much more than foxes. Gracious, I’m drunk.” (In case we were worried that the writing might be getting better or more subtle, this is the argument when Scout goes to the dictionary and reads the definition of bigot out loud from the dictionary. (“Bigot. Noun.”)
The last line of this book is “She went around the car, and as she slipped under the steering wheel, this time she was careful not to bump her head.” What makes this even worse is that this has actually been a motif throughout: bumping or not bumping your head on a car.
This should not have been published. It’s 280 pages in desperate need of an editor. Consider this passage from the middle: “Dr. Finch took from the oven a wooden salad bowl filled, to Jean Louise’s amazement, with greens. I hope it wasn’t on.” “I hope”? This is clearly a mistake. This is not a finished book. The flashbacks are the only good parts — as an editor clearly realized, correctly, half a century ago.
If you were anywhere in the vicinity of me when I was reading the thing, you heard a horrible bellowing noise, followed by the sound of a book being angrily tossed down, followed by a heavy sigh as I picked it up again, read another paragraph that ran “Had she insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind,” and then began whimpering softly.
“To Kill A Mockingbird” currently occupies a rightful place on every school curriculum. It is one of the rare books where the people doing the right thing are the compelling and interesting ones, and the movie with Gregory Peck doesn’t hurt, either.
Why add this to the pile? Harper Collins kept insisting that this was a “pre-sequel,” if there were such a thing. But there isn’t. Nor is it “an invaluable companion” to the famous work. The fact that a classic had a rough first draft is not a revelation. That is how writing works. Characters change; settings change; worlds change. Good lines are rescued and transplanted into better soil. This is how the sausage of a book is made. Viewing the preliminary offal illuminates little about the ultimate result.
I understand that it is difficult to stay afloat in the publishing industry and that anything that will sell 1 million copies is, for that reason alone, worth printing. But that is the only reason.
Rough drafts are, as Nabokov said, sputum. This one is, especially. It’s the Jar Jar of classic literature: It takes place in a beloved fictional universe, and it’s uncomfortably racist. It has, at best, a scholarly interest. I can’t imagine that Lee would want it to represent her in the world. I don’t think it should have been published.