The Harper Lee Conundrum

When, like me, you’ve taught To Kill a Mockingbird to tenth graders for thirty years, you have a personal stake in Harper Lee’s only “other” novel, Go Set a Watchman, published a few months ago. For three decades, I’ve deconstructed Atticus’s airtight argument that proved Tom Robinson’s innocence beyond anyone’s (but a racist jury’s) doubt. I’ve introduced countless teens to the notion that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” Reading and rereading the classic so connected me to the text; I learned and loved something new every time.

It’s been as difficult for me to separate the truth from the gossip surrounding Watchman, as it has always been to get students to appreciate the full monty of Mockingbird, the book, as compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, the movie. The 1960s Oscar-winning film omits the Southern excesses of Atticus’s siblings: Aunt Alexandra and bachelor Uncle Jack, the doctor in the Finch family. Yet, sister and brother continue to impact Harper Lee’s fictional world in Watchman in surprising and crafted ways.

Writers know, however, that crafted and well-crafted are two separate treatments, which leads me to the talking heads’ debate over Watchman: is it merely the rejected original manuscript of Mockingbird, something that aged and, some say ailing and addled Lee got duped into publishing? Or has Lee reshaped Watchman twice over her long life? First in the late 1950s, following her editor’s suggestion to turn the original manuscript’s clock back two decades—a rewrite that morphed into the Pulitzer Prize winning Mockingbird—and then again years later, trying to get the older Scout’s story right?

Even before Watchman’s publication, airways buzzed about which came first, the Watchman chicken or the Mockingbird egg, as well as a striking difference in Atticus.

I was all ears.

So when, on the way to a James Taylor concert a few weeks ago, my niece asked me, “Auntie Laura, where do you stand as an English teacher on this new Harper Lee book?” it was as if she had pressed my play button. “You know there’s all this controversy about if Lee wanted it published and if it is the rejected or the rewritten version, yadda-yadda-yadda I’m not sure I even want to read it, yadda-yadda-yadda, because I don’t want to be disappointed.“

I felt confident about my know-it-all English teacher rant based on The New York Times saying this and The Guardian saying that, etc., etc. That is, until the fellow I know so well, the one next to me at the JT fest, questioned me, not then, but the next evening, as straightforwardly and objectively as Atticus himself might have cross-examined.

“How do you really know it’s not worth your time unless you read it?” His emphasis on really implied that I who have been connected to the hip of Lee’s body of work, including her legwork as researcher for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood—that I should know better.

Before the night was over, I downloaded Watchman onto my Kindle. And I read, delighted with the first chapter. At 3% (my Kindle doesn’t give page numbers), it appeared to be a love story between a grownup Scout, now exclusively called Jean Louise, and her childhood friend Henry, also known as Hank. But where did this Henry/Hank guy come from? Where were Jem and Dill?

Watchman had me turning, I mean tapping, who-knows-what number page after page, until—at 6%—I lingered awhile on a single sentence that pegged Maycomb, the county Jean Louise left behind for NYC, as a place where “If you did not want much, there was plenty.” That perfectly wrought sentence was plenty enough for me to feel it was worth picking up—I mean downloading—the book.

That is until 5% later when Lee writes off Jean Louise’s brother in three words and goes on to throw out all the stops at 36%, as Jean Louise sneaks a peak of Atticus and Hank at The Citizens’ council meeting. Seated at a table alongside an influential racist who has just delivered a no-question-about-it hate speech, neither man says anything. Atticus’s silence betrays everything he has taught her. Hank’s everything she believes. She flees the scene and vomits.

If I weren’t reading this on a Kindle, I would have thrown the book across the room. I did put it down for a day or so. Still, my thoughts wouldn’t let go of the book and the buzz.

If Watchman was written before TKAM, then Atticus “the Saint” (as opposed to Atticus “the Segregationist”) wouldn’t exist until after a savvy editor told Lee to rethink and revise the matters of Maycomb by bringing the story back to Jean Louise’s childhood . . . so maybe, in the way all writers must sometimes kill off their darlings, maybe Lee killed off her anti-darlin’ by stuffing him in a drawer or safe deposit box where he couldn’t breathe, and so he died. And reincarnated Atticus #2 from the dead Lee scroll to inhabit the Mockingbird manuscript?

I recharged the Kindle and read through one-sided rantings about race, religion, and marriage at Aunt Alexandra’s tea and speechifying about history and politics via Uncle Jack. Jean Louise comes to blows with Atticus too but not in the way reviewers had led me to believe.

Sure, I wish I could climb into Harper Lee’s skin to view this all from her point of view, but she declined an interview with Oprah and there is a guard at her assisted-living residence door. So, judging by what she wrote, I’ve formed my own opinion: Go Set a Watchman is nothing more than the failed draft. I missed the polished style and grace that becomes the smooth storytelling of Mockingbird and the classic’s ideals. Yet, even if the new novel is really the old rejected novel, reading Go Set a Watchman reminded me—as it did Jean Louise—how often the objects of our affection—our loves, our family, our friends, and even our favorite writers—can fall from grace, simply because they are human or think differently from us. Even recognizing the narrow-mindedness and rough edges of this literary milestone—flaws that may have been out of Lee’s control to keep under wraps – I still have the urge to embrace its creation. When it comes to Harper Lee and me, the love is so strong as to risk being 100% unconditional.



Laura B. Hayden


About the Author

Laura B. Hayden taught high school students for thirty years in Enfield, Connecticut and received her WCSU MFA in Creative and Professional Writing in 2011, the same year she published her memoir, Staying Alive: A Love Story. She currently mentors WCSU MFA students and is researching a biography of Marjorie Guthrie, Woody Guthrie’s second wife and life companion.