Mockingbird v. Watchman: A New Lens

Note: Spoilers (always) ahead. Don’t come to the blog if you haven’t done the homework.

Techniques tracked in this post:
-The use of physical gesture to signal a character’s emotional transition
-The function of flashback
-Revealing the climactic moment up front, then pulling back to see what led there

This month marks a publishing event that, if you are to believe the hype, will not be paralleled in our lifetime. It’s true there is no other living writer of an American classic who published exactly one book and then claimed, defiantly and repeatedly, that they would never publish another. Well, never is here.

People who don’t want to read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman because they don’t want to find out Atticus is racist just might be the exact people who need to read it, the ones who don’t want to find out America is racist. (Think about it: Atticus and America are the same number of letters.) If it’s a shock that an all-good-seeming white man has a darker side (so to speak), I guess another thing people aren’t reading is the news.

Another reason I’ve heard cited for avoiding the book is that Harper Lee has been taken advantage of in her old age in what’s been called the biggest money grab in publishing history. Personally, I’m of the mind that the speculation of manipulation is probably true. However, this draft of what evolved into To Kill A Mockingbird still has immense non-monetary value. It is not a sequel; it is a precursor. My jaw dropped when I heard from one of my students that another Harper Lee novel was coming out, and my disappointment was admittedly severe when I learned it was not some new tome she’s been painstakingly poring over all these years, but was written before Mockingbird. Nonetheless, as a writer, it is greatly beneficial to see how Lee cut her craft chops, and, as per Joe Nocera above, transformed Watchman’s good idea into Mockingbird’s gem.

A shortcoming of Watchman that earmarks it as a draft rather than an independent work is the amount of scenes that don’t add up to anything, that seem irrelevant. The editor who first read it (and requested a rewrite) said Watchman was “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” Tom Robinson’s trial, Mockingbird’s focal point, is barely mentioned in passing here, with a few extended flashbacks filling its void. Theoretically, such flashbacks should be included because of their relevance to the present storyline, which to me is always synonymous with the main character’s emotional trajectory. This narrative is bringing the adult Jean Louise to a critical turning point, which Antonya Nelson calls the transitional moment, the point at which she becomes different than she was when the narrative began.

In one of these flashbacks, an adolescent Jean Louise, once again Scout, mistakenly comes to believe she is pregnant, inducing months of anxiety that almost culminate in her killing herself. The function of this flashback becomes apparent enough: Scout’s past overwhelming worry about the pregnancy parallels her present overwhelming worry that her father is not the man she thought he was. Further, and perhaps more importantly, her worry about the pregnancy is misguided—she is not actually pregnant—foreshadowing the plot turn that her present worry about her father’s character is misguided as well. This is indeed what pans out: Scout’s transition is that she comes to accept that her father’s apparently racist beliefs are for the common good.

In another flashback, Scout and her boyfriend accidentally deface a sign at their high school, offending the principal, who demands to know the culprits. When Scout finally brings herself to confess, it turns out that every other girl in the class has, at the urging of Scout’s clever boyfriend, done so also, so that her confession is rendered meaningless and she doesn’t get in trouble. The role of this flashback is more difficult to pin down. Scout’s supposed crime at the time of commission was an innocuous accident rather than harmful, but she feels the need to confess because it’s the right thing to do: she did it, whether she intended harm or not. In the process of fulfilling her moral duty, she discovers her need to uphold it has been nullified by the cooperation of the larger community: together, they are able to escape punitive oppression from a lone source. Scout’s being rescued from believing it’s the right thing to submit to traditional authority replicates what she will come to understand is the current Maycomb population’s situation, as they try to resist the displacement of their Southern identity and values by the overarching authority of the federal government. Scout’s character trajectory, her storyline, is her development of a moral identity independent of her father’s, and this flashback seems to underscore the complication that an individualized identity still must be contextualized by the larger community (as echoed by Henry’s assertion that his reason for endorsing continued segregation is to fit in with the rest of the town). Part of Scout’s struggle in establishing her own identity is her struggle with still being a part of Maycomb, which she initially considers fleeing altogether, but ultimately accepts. This flashback provides us with an emotional parallel to the character’s emotional trajectory in the present story, and the memory of it perhaps helps her navigate or make sense of her present circumstances, but it still does not come into play in the plot in any material way. The principal himself returning in the present and doing something, anything, as we will see Boo Radley does in Mockingbird, would be one way this flashback could manifest more concretely in the present.

The early scenes in Mockingbird provide more than events with moral and emotional curves that will recur in later ones. The early scenes concretely influence what will happen in later ones, which is the necessary justification for scenes being rendered at all. Notably, there are few if any actual flashbacks, as the story’s been reworked to eradicate this potentially distracting element that risks draining tension from the present narrative. Contrast the scenes in Mockingbird of Dill, Jem, and Scout trying to make Boo Radley come out of his house with a flashback of them playing in Watchman. In the latter, the three play a game imitating a church service inadvertently witnessed by the preacher when Atticus invites him for lunch. When Atticus leaves the table after the preacher disparages his naughty kids, Scout thinks he’s upset before finding out he had to leave because he was laughing. She discovers that his reaction is the opposite of what she thought it was. This passage then seems to be doing work similar to the pregnancy anxiety flashback, setting up that Scout’s father is not who she thinks he is. But because this work is already being done elsewhere, this particular scene needs to be doing more to justify its inclusion.

In Mockingbird this scene has evolved so that it’s the hermit Boo Radley who witnesses the children imitating him, though we don’t see him see it. The children’s game functions concretely as a stepping stone to more elaborate efforts to draw Boo from his home, efforts that don’t seem to work at the time, as Boo does not emerge on their desired cue but does so unexpectedly, placing a blanket on Scout while she watches a neighborhood house burn and leaving Jem’s pants out for him after he loses them in the course of trying to glimpse Boo through the window. They don’t see Boo in either case, but they do get him to come out, and these comings out presage Boo’s most climactic plot-important coming out, when he saves Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell. Ewell was disgraced and enraged by Atticus’s cross-examination of him during the trial of Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping Ewell’s white daughter. This rescue is a proper climax, in which separate spun plot threads (the Boo Radley game and the Robinson trial) concretely intersect. Boo the hermit who occasionally comes out is not left dangling as a mere symbol, symbol though he might be. He is a person who actually does something.

Another technique developing in Watchman is the use of physical gestures to convey emotion: Jean Louise hits her head on car doors because she is not used to riding in them. This happens twice, at the beginning of chapter 5: “When she was getting in the car she bumped her head hard against its top.” And again in chapter 12: “She bumped her head getting into the car. I shall never become accustomed to these things.” Then, in chapter 19, we get the novel (draft)’s final line: “She went around the car, and as she slipped under the steering wheel, this time she was careful not to bump her head.” This conclusion is meant to show us that Jean Louise has transitioned from someone stuck in preconceived mental patterns (she cannot get used to the newfangled vehicle, cannot exist in harmony with it, sharing space) to someone who has become aware of these patterns and through this awareness can now achieve the harmony that previously eluded her. She was figuratively and fruitlessly banging her head against the bigotry of Maycomb’s populace; by the end, the populace’s attitude remains, but it is Jean Louise who has changed, no longer resisting it.

The aforementioned cited passages also show Lee mixing first person with third person to produce a more intimate variety of what James Wood would call free indirect discourse, putting us directly in the character’s thoughts, a warm-up for Mockingbird‘s exclusively first-person narration, lauded for its blending of a child’s and adult’s voice, which is also a product of integrating the flashbacks into the present narrative.

Finally, something to take from Mockingbird independently is its structural integrity. It begins: “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” The book tells the story of how Jem came to break his elbow, which he does in the climactic tussle with Bob Ewell and Boo Radley. Though the reader will likely forget entirely, on first read at least, that we’ve already been told what will happen, the announcement instills a sense of narrative direction that negates saggy flashbacks. That we begin where we end might make the entire book one long flashback, in which case it has itself become the present narrative. Note that the writer telling us what’s going to happen in the first line doesn’t deflate tension but rather does the opposite, making us want to read more to find out how it happens. The question is how did we get here, and the scenes provide the answer.


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Recently, I was at a used bookstore here in Houston purchasing a paperback of Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street when the intrepid independent bookseller (all indie booksellers are intrepid, and this one, having fled Hurricane Katrina with his voluminous bibliostock in tow, is doubly so) declared emphatically that the novel ultimately didn’t work. It is the bookseller’s conundrum to only be able to discuss a work with someone who has not actually read it yet, since they’re in the process of buying it, so the conversation is inevitably going to be a bit one-sided. Nevertheless, as a writer, this declaration makes me bristle automatically, no matter how true it might prove to be.

This is a blog that aims to “review” creative writing, albeit not in a traditional sense. Generally, though I hate to hate things, I dislike book reviews, which so often seem to need to find something wrong in order to showcase the reviewer’s own intelligence (cough*James Wood*cough). But as a teacher of creative writing, I cannot believe that it is not valuable to formulate written analytical opinions on creative subject matter; the key is to find a balance where the analytical angle fosters the creative rather than strangling it. As I tell my students, when we read creative work, whether published or unpublished, we are not looking for what is “wrong,” but for what it can teach us. Every semester I assign students a presentation on a published work with the goal of identifying (at least) two techniques that writer is using to achieve (or attempt to achieve) a certain emotional effect–it is that model I am attempting to replicate in my posts here. What did we feel? Why did we feel it? I am sharing the moderation of this blog with my students at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts here in Houston, and their assigned presentation reviews will appear here sporadically, once school starts. This is a discussion forum, not a declaration pedestal from which to exact vengeful vendettas. Blogs are a (theoretically) friendly format, where you don’t have to feel your every word needs to be polished, where you can expel just enough energy to create a palatable presentation without working your words until their meaning disintegrates in front of you.

Reviews, appraisals of the written word, are in the business of assessing whether or not the words “work.” So how does a novel “work”? Well, to return to basic definitions, what constitutes a narrative? Something has to happen. But for a narrative to “work,” the something that happens has to be more specific: what happens cannot be arbitrary, as in: an asteroid strikes the planet and everyone dies. What happens has to be meaningful to a particular character(s), which is another way of saying what happens is that a character changes, or is at least offered the opportunity to (in which case the something happening is the character rejects this choice). At any rate, while I agree a classification can be made about whether a novel/narrative “works” or doesn’t, any reader who deigns to weigh in, no matter how offhanded or considered, has not put anywhere near as much work into this judgment as the writer has into creating the narrative. People who write published reviews usually also work in the genre they’re reviewing, and yet the derisive tone of many seem not to take these difficulties into account. Such reviews of the type that will not appear here, representing the aggressive and passive-aggressive models, respectively, appear here and here. While these writers do provide evidence for the derogatory claims they make, whether Cronin’s intro is “preposterously self-important” or Ishiguro’s approach to memory is a “folly” remain subjective to a degree these reviewers do not, to me at least, adequately acknowledge. So let’s criticize the critics and see how they like it. You, critics, have a tendency to state opinions as fact based on evidence that could be appropriated to support entirely opposing ones (as the simultaneously astute and munificent Zadie Smith does with backlash against EM Forster here). There’s a world of difference between “It works because [x, y, and z]” and “I think it works because [x, y, and z].” It’s important to remember that we’re all thinking here, and some of us think differently.

The subjectivity of reading audiences is far-flung and wide-ranging, as I experienced firsthand yesterday at my office’s monthly book club. The novel under discussion was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son—full disclosure, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers. I did not disclose this to the book club, as I could tell as soon as I walked in that the pendulum of opinion was swinging hard the other way. A significant percentage of those there had not managed to finish. “Does it get any better?” someone irritably asked. Another reader offered that the story got better, though the things happening to the people in it definitely did not. To some present, these two interpretations of “better” were effectively the same; troubling or challenging subject matter was not preferred reading. Before the lunch hour was up the conversation had turned to “lighter” reading options (including, if I heard correctly, a series about a cat solving mysteries), like we were a room full of literary fad dieters. Point being, what one reader finds clear another finds confusing, while what’s clear for one reader might cross into heavy-handed for another. Flannery O’Connor believed that people, high school students specifically, struggle with fiction because it contains mystery, and we want answers, not questions. She believed English teachers might be singlehandedly responsible for the face of the bestseller list, since it is at a tender age that an aesthetic appreciation may be imparted—or destroyed. There is the distinction between “good” as entertaining versus painfully life-affirming. For me, for a book to be good, pain has to be part of it—dramatized pain, mind you, not the pain of reading a hundred pages in which nothing meaningful is happening. How writers make their happenings meaningful will be the recurring subject here.

I have not yet gotten around to reading my used copy of Great Jones Street, but I did recently finish DeLillo’s End Zone and must admit my reaction upon doing so was “What the hell was that?” I did not, upon turning the last page, feel a sense of closure, or enlightenment, or sympathy, which, for a writer like DeLillo, could be precisely the point. I did not feel the ethereal content of the conversations between football players remotely resembled realistic dialog—again, likely, part of the point. This I’m willing to concede. I’m still thinking about it.

The power of the written word is that I get to say what I want, but, much like constraints on personal rights and freedoms, I should remain aware of how what I say might infringe negatively on or nullify what others have said. Not to say that I don’t think we should say things that disagree with others. I think that what we say should be geared in a productive rather than detrimental way, because it’s easy to get defensive. Writing is hard. Let’s be generous to those who have been generous enough to share it with us. Even when we confront what we deem failures, what can we learn from the glorious attempt?