Tuesday’s publication of Harper Lee’s newly discovered novel has been hailed as a historical literary event. Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Lee submitted to publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Karen Head, an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, and director of the Communication Center, said the new work is a rare gift for readers and writers.
Without question, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is one of America’s great novels — one that is read and taught throughout the world because of its importance, both for the excellence of the writing and for its important and universal themes, including loss of innocence (coming of age), gender inequity, courage in the face of adversity, prejudice, and racial injustice. While many critics will be closely examining what has been widely reported to be a very different representation of the main characters, what intrigues me most, both as a writer (a Southern one at that) and as a writing teacher, is the lesson of revision we are about to encounter with the release of Go Set a Watchman.
Go Set a Watchman represents a rare look at a writer’s process — the book being Lee’s first attempt at telling the story of the denizens of Maycomb, Alabama. Reportedly Lee’s editors returned her original manuscript, explaining they were more intrigued by sections that reflected the childhood of the main character, Jean Louise Finch (Scout). Lee purportedly extracted the sections about Jean Louise’s childhood and rewrote the story to create the beloved novel we have known for over half a century.
This week marks our opportunity to compare the versions and learn some important lessons about the craft of writing. It is a rare gift to have the opportunity to do this kind of analysis. I suspect, once we have read the “new” book, we will again be challenged by Lee to consider the human condition — reminding us how our struggles as individuals and as a society must be vigilantly examined and re-examined for us to overcome the problems we face.
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