When I chose Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee as our August read, I knew there would be discussion about how well it was written. I think we all assumed it would never top her To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of writing excellence or character development. I'm not sure any of us had an idea of the turmoil the book would cause in the literary world, or how many words would be written about the newly published book. I'll admit, I probably have more conversations about books than the average person. After all, my entire working life has been in books, and many of my friends come from this world as well, but even for me, this is overwhelming. Today, while reading an online piece in the New Yorker about musician Kasey Musgraves, there was a reference to Harper Lee and other Southern writers who have written about "home.” Because Andrew Marantz is a very talented writer, I will not attempt to paraphrase his article, but instead, am including part of it here for your perusal.
"1935, the Kentucky-born poet Allen Tate wrote about the dilemma of writing Southern literature that would be ‘read curiously as travel literature by Northern people alone.’ This is not exclusively a Southern problem. Artists of many extractions have struggled with the question of how much of their people’s dirty laundry they should air in public—see, e.g., Philip Roth’s “Writing About Jews,” or Dave Chappelle’s explanation, to Oprah Winfrey, of why he quit his show (‘I know the difference between people laughing with me and people laughing at me’). In 1978, in an essay called ‘Going Back to Georgia,’ Walker Percy wrote, ‘One nice lady in my home town said to me the other day: “You’re just like certain other Southern writers—no sooner do they get published in New York than they turn on the South and criticize it.” I didn’t have the nerve but I felt like saying: ‘You’re damn right, lady. I sure do.’ ”
Another chronicler of Southern life, Harper Lee, is currently the best-selling author in the country. In her beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, Lee portrays Maycomb as a bucolic Alabama town, despite its flaws; in Go Set a Watchman, published last week by HarperCollins, Maycomb is overrun with conformists and hypocrites. “There’s no place for me in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home any place else,” Jean Louise Finch says.
In Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack tells her, “It takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days. You don’t have it yet, but you have a shadow of the beginnings of it.” According to Watchman’s publisher, Harper Lee wrote the book in the nineteen-fifties, as an early draft of what would become Mockingbird. There are reasons to doubt this version of events; but, on its face, it is plausible that an artist’s first depiction of her home town would over-represent its flaws, and that her second attempt would overcorrect toward sappiness. A more mature authorial voice would be a synthesis between the two—neither self-righteously indignant nor willfully naïve. It’s safe to assume that Lee, who is eighty-nine, will never write such a book.
Well, there you have it. Read the book, do your own research, or simply come and listen to the conversations. We now have two options for your CapRadio Reads enjoyment. Sign up for the 2pm or the 6pm meeting on Tuesday, August 11, and I'll see you at both.