By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 20, 2015
Readers who love To Kill A Mockingbird with the passion of a true believer should not read Go Set A Watchman. However, if you want to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, how books used to be edited, and how a decent literary novel evolved into one of the greatest novels of all time, then you’ll probably need to read Go Set A Watchman.
Atticus Finch, the father in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most beloved, admired and respected character in all of literature. How was such a character created? Before this year most readers assumed Harper Lee based Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a real-life lawyer, using her mother, Frances Finch, family’s name. Superficially, it appears we have many clues to suggest the story was autobiographical. This month, Go Set A Watchman was published, an earlier draft of what would become To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch in Watchman is a much different man than the literary saint he became in the final version?
I am troubled by the implication of many reviewers of the Go Set A Watchman that the 1930s Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird has matured into the 1950s Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman. 1950s Atticus was created first even though his story appears second in print and second in time. 1930s Atticus evolved from 1950s Atticus.
“The Invisible Hand Behind Harper’s Lee ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” by Jonathan Mahler at the New York Times gives us some clues. Harper Lee was lucky to find Tay Hohoff at J. B. Lippincott for her editor. Hohoff was the old fashioned kind of editor that worked extensively with a writer to shape their novels. Hohoff convinced Lee not to go with the novel she submitted. I assume that submission is close to what we’re reading now as Go Set A Watchman. Lee and Hohoff worked two years editing the book that became To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. Mahler also brings up one other valuable clue—Hohoff wrote A Ministry to Man, a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott during this time that was published in 1959. There might be a good bit of Lovejoy in Atticus since the two woman worked so closely together, and the editor may have convinced Lee to create a more humanistic hero for her story.
My guess is Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman was probably closer to Amasa Coleman Lee, and the Atticus in Mockingbird is closer to John Lovejoy Elliott. But I also assume that Atticus is mostly the creation of Nelle Harper Lee. We can never know the actual scientific details of the evolution of Atticus Finch. It’s not too wild of a speculation that Hohoff convinced Lee that she needed a likable hero which Atticus Watchman was not. How much Hohoff actually contributed to the creation of Atticus is unknown.
We love Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, but her story would not have made the novel one of the perfect novels of all time. The success of Mockingbird tells me a great novel needs a great character that will be widely loved. How did Harper Lee learn this? From Hohoff? What about from her real father? We don’t know what Amasa Lee was like, but if he was closer to the Atticus Finch in Watchman, he could have taught Nelle Lee she needed a saint and not a real person like himself to create an immortal character. This is just speculation, but the ending of Go Set A Watchman makes me wonder if Nelle was inspired by her father to become a prophet for her cause. (By the way, a prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one who shapes the future. Harper Lee is a true prophet.)
Readers want Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird to be real. Like all great people in history, their legend overshadows their reality. Atticus Finch stands with Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as being saintly inspirations to the masses, but they all were probably less than perfect to their friends and family. Harper Lee’s writing shows she was an incredibly sharp observer of people, culture and history. I can easily imagine Lee and Hohoff sitting around speculating on possibilities and throwing out, “What if Atticus Finch became a saint to his readers?” It was at that point that the Atticus of Watchman evolves into the Atticus of Mockingbird. It took Lee a couple of years to transform her protagonist. Whereas the early fathers of Christianity spent two hundred years transforming their god. If Lee had spent any more time on Atticus I’m afraid Lee would have given Atticus psychic powers and let him walk on water.
It’s fascinating that Harper Lee rewrote the novel and set it twenty years earlier. This was a savvy move because it let her create Scout, Jem and Dill as immortal characters rather than anecdotes of memory. But it also positioned Atticus back into time letting him stand out as a guiding light amongst his peers. It’s actually very hard to imagine 1930s Atticus dealing with the 1950s issues. Reducing everything to one court case simplified the major plot and left room for the second plot of Boo Radley. The trial doesn’t begin until the middle of the novel, but everything that comes before sets up the second half of the story. Somehow Hohoff convinced Lee to take sketches of her past and put them into a holistic unity. That also helped shape the character Atticus.
If you’ve read Go Set A Watchman you know it’s filled with long verbose passages dealing with intellectual arguments over race, often about desegregation, a concept 1930s people couldn’t imagine. This makes the 1950s Atticus a mouthpiece for racist rationalization. Throwing the story back twenty years, and letting Atticus speak far less, gives him wisdom and compassion, allowing him to be ahead of his times with modern humanistic insight. 1930s Atticus anticipating the 1950s makes for a much better Atticus. Writing a contemporary novel with a character who thinks with future insight is probably impossible. No wonder most great novels are about events that have gestated in a writer’s mind for decades. It’s also why successful prophets of history were discovered long after the fact.
The Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is made a hero for Jean Louise in a roundabout way. I’m extremely glad to have read Go Set A Watchman, but that’s because it gives me a lot of evidence about how Harper Lee became a great writer. Comparing the two makes it all too obvious why Lee never published anything more. It would have seem silly to create another best-selling saint, and foolish to compete with her own success. Lee could have done something like J. K. Rowling and explored another genre. I assume she didn’t stop writing, but probably kept it to herself like J. D. Salinger did all those years. Wouldn’t it be weird to see an early draft of Catcher in the Rye?
If Harper Lee had only written about Scout, Jem and Dill, she could have continued to crank out novels her whole life like Louisa May Alcott did after Little Women. Or if Lippincott had published Go Set A Watchman, which would have had modest success, she could have shown improvement. But to create something so perfect as To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, I can understand why Harper Lee withdrew from the world of fame.