Searching for the end of the bookshelf and the belt line with K.M. Zahrt
Like at least 1.1 million other people around the globe, I found myself, whether I truly wanted to or not, reading Go Set a Watchman last month. The book was billed as the “second novel” of Harper Lee, and there was much ado about the book’s release on July 14, 2015. I’d be surprised if you managed to miss all of the Internet debate over the event.
The first concern was over the question of integrity. Was this Harper Lee’s intention to publish this work? It doesn’t seem that way. For decades, Lee has famously maintained that she wouldn’t publish another book. Very recently, at age 88, Lee issued a letter responding to the publication of a mere biography of her (and not a book claiming to be hers) in which she stated, “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood” (USA Today). Suddenly, now, here one comes. It’s perplexing. There’s little doubt as to the fact that the material was cleaned up and re-packaged for publication as a novel, which only raises more questions: How much of that editing was in line with Lee’s vision? How much of it was tampering? Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure.
Another concern: What about Lee’s legacy and that of To Kill a Mockingbird? To Kill a Mockingbird has captured the hearts and minds of readers of all ages and backgrounds for half a century. Some folks have even gone so far as to name their children after beloved characters, most notably Atticus, also Scout. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is a wise man, who stands for principles and against racism. In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus is revealed (and I don’t believe this to be a spoiler) to be a man who stands for his principles, but he stands for them in the face of racism as well as in support of racism, on a case by case basis.
Another concern: Was this simply a cash grab by those involved in its publication? Smashing sales records, it certainly grabbed plenty of cash. It’s hard to argue with that kind of evidence.
I believe this material could’ve been published without scandal as a companion to To Kill a Mockingbird as unused raw material. That’s what I believe this work was before it was dressed up for the sales windows. Even the casual reader, in comparing To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, should notice the difference in terms of fit and finish. This could be a useful case study for aspiring writers as an example of a half finished novel versus a complete work. From an academic standpoint, there’s value in having this material available. It would’ve been nice to see it published in an untampered condition, perhaps an annotated edition with notes from leading scholars. I think many fans would’ve bought and read it that way. I would have. Would it have smashed sales records? No.
This is not the first time, nor the last, that unfinished works have been posthumously published to big sales in support of the bottom line. Think of nearly the entire collection of Emily Dickinson poetry. Think of Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories and other full-length books. A recent example comes to mind: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King published in 2011 (to Little, Brown and Company’s credit it was actually published as “An Unfinished Novel”). Those examples span three centuries.
Ultimately, even if the books are published under the direction of family members or long-time editors who worked with the authors, put a mental asterisk next to any posthumously published title and read them with that in mind.
One final note on Go Set a Watchman (I promise!), I wish a youthful Harper Lee, with a sound mind, was available today to finish a book in the right way, because there’s a lot of nuggets and fragments of worthwhile ideas there about the nature of racism and bigotry that, if they were carried through to completion and done so with recent tragedies in mind, our country would likely benefit greatly from a truly new novel by Harper Lee.
As promised, I did get to Winesburg, Ohio (1919) by Sherwood Anderson. Earlier this year, I attended a conference on Midwestern literature, and all the talk was of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Nearly every presentation I attended made some kind of reference to it, so naturally, I tried it. It didn’t do much for me. I’ll promise you, however, I’ll try it again in five years.
Here’s my theory on why it didn’t work for me this time: I’m too close to it. In many ways Winesburg, Ohio may as well have been Fremont, Michigan (where I’m from) one hundred years ago. The Winesburg Eagle, the town’s newspaper, may as well have been the Times Indicator, the paper in my hometown. I could go on and on with the comparisons. I can see how readers unfamiliar with this small, rural, Midwestern lifestyle could be taken with it. Fans of the book have even traveled to Clyde, Ohio, the town that the book is supposedly based on, just to see it. If reading Winesburg, Ohio is the literary equivalent to taking a look about town, what I’m saying is, I don’t need to; I grew up there. Perhaps creating that feeling in a reader native to these parts is in itself a noteworthy accomplishment. I’ll grant Anderson that much, for now.
I’m glad I read Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (1992) in conjunction with Anderson’s book because there’s many similarities — both works are essentially linked short stories with shared characters and locales. By reading these books together, one can get a small sense of the evolution of American fiction writing during that timespan. For Johnson’s work specifically, there’s an attitude in these stories that can be summed up nicely by the last sentence of the first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which states, “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” I’m constantly reminded of that sentiment as I read what is my favorite story in this collection, “Emergency,” which draws an ambivalent contrast between lives being lived, lives being saved, and lives being lost. A similar description could be said of Anderson’s book, but it’s interesting to watch how these authors arrive there from routes separated by nearly a century.
A Note on the Scoreboard
Stay tuned this week for a special “Inventory, Goals Assessment Edition” of Trimming Book-Fat.