I finished reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman last week and have been mulling it over ever since. Like nearly everyone who has read Watchman or intends to do so, my reactions are intrinsically a product of my relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird. Significantly, I had not been introduced to Mockingbird at the formative age when it could have rocked my world views. To be sure, I admired Mockingbird a great deal as an important story, gracefully and economically told, with unforgettable characters, alive with telling events on nearly every page. But, coming to Mockingbird as an adult and as a writer, there was never a time when I could put myself into that fictional family or wish that Atticus was my father.
And so now, I’ve been asked, as a writer, what I think of Watchman. What people really want to know is what I think of the portrayal of Atticus Finch as harboring racist views. First of all, you have to realize that Atticus is a character seen though the eyes of another character, our narrator Scout. Given that Scout is a child in Mockingbird and an adult, Jean Louise, in Watchman, she must inevitably see things differently. At the very least, absent good reason, an adult character is generally less likely to comprehend other people in absolutist terms with no shades of gray.
“But wait,” some exclaim, “he’s undergone a personality transplant. How dare the author mess with our beloved Atticus. He was so noble in Mockingbird, so willing to endure the cost of standing up for his principles, and in Watchman he’s a smaller person, judgmental and in some respects mean-spirited.”
Alas, I have news for you. Writers change their characters’ personalities in fundamental ways all the time. Characters don’t and can’t exist in a vacuum. For one thing, they must evolve over time, no less than a real person who has lived another twenty years and been influenced by societal changes for better or worse. For another, the character must drive the plot and in turn is usually changed by it, just as we are all products to one degree or another by the significant events in our own lives.
And yet, character growth over the course of a novel is a different thing than a radical personality transplant. Fair enough. It strikes me that what likely happened is this. Harper Lee, like any writer, needed to come up with the right characters for the story she wished to tell. As a new writer, she began with the version of Atticus in Watchman. The story changed as she worked her way through some meaty revisions. Those changes, in turn meant that the original portrayal of Atticus in Watchman simply wasn’t right for the Mockingbird story.
There’s another factor at work that I haven’t mentioned yet, namely the role of a good editor. Though I have no special inside knowledge as to the relationship between Harper Lee and her editor, Tay Hohoff, I think it pretty apparent that she had the invaluable guidance of a terrific editor. By all accounts, it was Hohoff who suggested that Harper Lee recast the novel, setting it twenty years earlier when Scout was a child in the 1930s learning about people and about morality and about society from those around her, especially her father. You can see it in Watchman, as the passages in which Jean Louise recollects incidents from her childhood are the most vivid, the most alive and genuine in the book. Setting the novel entirely during Scout’s childhood also forced Harper Lee to ditch the Watchman scenes in which Jean Louise makes speeches to other characters in lieu of dialog, as well as other scenes that simply don’t go anywhere.
As a writer, having read the two versions in close proximity to one another, I find it enormously encouraging to see just how much an astute editor can assist a writer in recasting a story to make it the best possible. Though not every editor can work with a first-time novelist to reach the towering achievement of Mockingbird, the value of a good editor is vastly under recognized.