Thursday, 02 June 2016 18:25

Ms. Lee and the Real Atticus

Written by Anne Dubuisson

Several years ago, a writer came up to me after a talk I presented about strategies to get your work published. She told me that when I was a literary agent, several years prior, I had written her a pretty strong note telling her that her novel wasn’t ready for publication. I braced for her recrimination, as she quoted my words, which were instructions to more or less, “put this manuscript in your bottom drawer”. I began to apologize to her for my “candor”, but she cut me off. “Actually, I wanted to thank you. You spared me from publishing something that was far from my best work.”

As has been widely reported, close to 60 years ago, Harper Lee’s agent sold her book “Go Set a Watchman” to Lippincott, whose editor ultimately declined to publish it, telling the author it was “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”. Ms. Lee then completely rewrote the book to create “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

“Watchman” of course, resurfaced to much fanfare and decidedly mixed reviews, many of which noted, yes, the book's anecdotal and unpolished nature. What really got readers’ and nonreaders’ attention however was that Mockingbird’s beloved Atticus had “turned into” a racist. But if you look at the history of the book, wasn’t it actually the other way around, that with Ms. Lee’s pen, along with the timeframe and other key elements of the book, Atticus had been transformed into the just and noble character we all admire?

A serious and skillful writer, and Ms. Lee was surely that, has the courage to take their manuscript, the fruit of countless hours of careful consideration and labor (remember, she was working on a typewriter!), put it aside and start over. Characters may change– a woman is now a child, a mother is now childless–and added—there is now a best friend, a boyfriend. Plots are reconsidered– the brother dies, or doesn’t, the protagonist makes an entirely different choice. The narrator is switched from first person to third, or vice-versa. I have found that in the majority of cases, the results of such transformations are worth the extraordinary effort. And all of the time spent on the earlier incarnation of the work is not a waste, it’s a crucial stepping stone to a true accomplishment.

Critics and readers are evaluating “Go Set a Watchman” as a sequel to “Mockingbird” instead of as a first draft of it, and that seems unfair. Instead, we should consider it a fascinating peak at the evolution of a brilliant writer’s craft. Atticus isn’t a racist, that Atticus was put away in the drawer, or, in this case, a vault.

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