Why is “Go Set a Watchman” labeled a sequel, when it is actually the author’s developmental work on the same material? While I air my laundry on this warm day, here’s another airing.
I’ll tell you what I’m bothered by, and it’s not the two different Atticus Finches in two separate novels. If you have ever tried to write fiction, using material from your own life, you are going to understand this. Recently I read Richard Russo’s “Mohawk.” He is the author of “Nobody’s Fool,” which was made into a terrific film starring Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy. Going back to read Nobody’s Fool after seeing the movie, I found it a great piece of work. Well, 95% of it was great—there was one clunker character. So, having discovered a novelist I liked a lot, I went to the library hoping for another home run, and checked out Mohawk, published years before Nobody’s Fool, What I found was a rougher handling of the same story—the same material and a similar story, but not gelled into greatness. In Mohawk, unlike the later novel, old women were completely unsympathetic characters, cliche and boring. Murder and mayhem came out of nowhere, the sort that suggested Russo wasn’t confident in his material and felt he needed to juice it up. Ugly versions of abuse and injury that the sensitive among us should be warned about. Except that they weren’t that believable, and didn’t give anything to the reader for the reader’s time. So you wouldn’t call Mohawk a classic. Good writing, but nothing that begs re-quoting, like in In Nobody’s Fool, where, to his landlady’s recurrent offer of tea, Sully always says, “Not now, not ever.” A line that is such fun to play with at home, and everyone knows where it comes from.
Clearly, Russo started over, with more love for his characters and stronger threads of humor, to arrive at Nobody’s Fool. I respect the hard work it took to produce Nobody’s Fool all the more for having glimpsed his struggle to write it. In the case of Harper Lee, from the New York Times’s biographical articles and research into the role played by her original editor, Tay Hofoff, it seems Hohoff, a very smart editor, scotched the first version of the story (Go Set a Watchman) because she believed that Harper Lee could make a masterpiece if she tried again with the same material.
So what I’m bothered by is how the marketeers jumped to re-label the old, nearly forgotten manuscript. It’s as though somebody with dollar signs in his eyes said, “What this needs to be taken for, to make the most money, is a sequel. If we label it as a sequel, and we say so authoritatively, citing the grown up Scout’s point of view, then we are home free, because it won’t get questioned in the mainstream. At least not until after we’ve had the Harper-Lee-new-novel sales bump.” Well, look what has happened: those who promote new books have echoed the one word, “sequel,” at the top of whatever they say. Second, they talk about the controversy of the nightmare of a racist Atticus Finch. It’s all so info-tainment.
Harper Lee is a genius, and you can count me among the many who call To Kill a Mockingbird a great American novel, maybe THE great American novel. But her masterpiece did not spill from her pen whole, transcendent, for the ages. Not for years, and not without the insight and pushing of a special editor. Which may unlock a bit of the mystery surrounding genius. It certainly puts to rest any controversy. In the complex mid-century south, racism tormented Harper Lee, and it was only after she fully digested her experience of it that she could go further—not only illustrating it, which sounds like the thrust of Go Set a Watchman, but showing an aspirational and deeper fairness we all have in us. In Mockingbird, she had the race novel she always wanted to write, and even beyond—she encouraged us not to discount anyone, not even Boo Radley.