“Watchman” was written first – as is widely known now thanks to the ballyhooed discovery of the manuscript.
Then it was rewritten and turned into the acclaimed, nay, beloved “Mockingbird.” The original manuscript was put away and all but forgotten.
“Watchman” removes any doubt about the authorship of the 1960 book that became an equally iconic movie starring Gregory Peck.
It removes any lingering suspicion that Truman Capote, a friend since childhood, shaped it, even wrote it. That slander was abetted by the fact that she helped him research his book “In Cold Blood,” appearing to play second fiddle to Capote, who did not get a Pulitzer for it, as Lee had for her novel.
(Capote shows up in “Watchman,” as he did in “Mockingbird,” as Dill, the boy who comes to Maycomb to visit his aunt in the summers. Scout, her brother, Jem, and Dill do a backyard spoof of a revival that was going on in town. It gives a hint of what Capote would become, the Tiny Terror of his besotted and drugged Studio 54 days.)
The innocence that makes “Mockingbird” charming is evident in this version.
Such as watching Scout reach puberty without a clue (because her mother had died), including a hilarious notion about how girls get pregnant.
The hand and mind that wrote “Watchman,” published last week, 55 years after “Mockingbird,” are the same that crafted the first book.
An editor persuaded the Monroeville, Ala., native to recast the original manuscript and tell the story from the recollection of a child’s perspective.
Harper Lee did that. Not an editor. The proof is in the same style and genius that were hers to start with.
Scout, the all-American tomboy, of course, is the literary version of the author. She is Frankie of Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding.”
“Watchman” is a grownups book.
Jean Louise Finch, now 26, returns to Maycomb, Ala., for a two-week vacation, and no longer sees the world through the eyes of a child. It is an unvarnished picture that comes into focus as Jean Louise, nee Scout, returns to stay with her father, Atticus Finch.
But it is not the same house, which had been torn down, a sign of mid-century encroachment. In its spot is an ice cream shop – with a white-gravel parking lot, just to set off its incongruity.
Atticus, the lawyer who successfully defended a black man in the 1930s wrongly accused of raping a white girl, has gotten old and arthritic.
This was the Deep South after the 1954 Brown v. Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which started a social change that has not stopped to this day. These were the days when billboards across the region demanded that Chief Justice Earl Warren be impeached.
These were the new and scary days. Shockingly so for Jean Louise, who was living in New York City after her college education.
She saw her father attend a Citizens’ Council meeting at which the speaker was spewing vile racism.
She recalled how he had built his reputation.
“His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its rewards were the respect and devotion of all who knew him. Even his enemies loved him, because Atticus never acknowledged that they were his enemy. He was never a rich man, but he was the richest man his children ever knew.”
And now he was one of them. Or was he? All she knew was she saw what she saw, just as she had watched two decades earlier from the balcony, where black folks were allowed to sit, during that trial.
She also saw her father’s junior law partner and her potential marital partner, Hank Clinton, at the table, the boy she left behind.
Their rationalized hypocrisy was crushing. She could see the scene as part of the drama that “began two hundred years ago and was played out in a proud society the bloodiest war and harshest peace in modern history could not destroy, returning, to be played out again on private ground in the twilight of a civilization no wars and no peace could save.”
But even that perspective didn’t explain it away.
Does this book measure up to “Mockingbird”? A better question perhaps is whether it solidifies Harper Lee’s place in American letters. It does.
» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1016.
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