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Songs of Innocence and Experience: From Mockingbird to Watchman

Scout comes home in Go Set a Watchman. The young girl who witnessed a drama in the courtroom of Maycolm, Alabama, that shaped our twentieth-century American narrative, who saw her beloved father Atticus Finch courageously stand to defend a falsely accused black man in her hometown, is now grown up at twenty-six, having spent her time living in New York City. Watchman, we are told by the publishers, is a newly “discovered” novel by Harper Lee, one that preceded her 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Though the publisher bought the rights in 1957 to Go Set a Watchman, Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor at the time, felt that it was too raw to publish. She worked with the young author, asking her to focus on Scout at a younger, more innocent age, and what she experienced as her courageous father stood for justice and the release of the falsely accused Tom Robinson. Over fifty years later the so-called “prequel” to Mockingbird is now a public offering, for all to ponder what it shockingly reveals: Scout discovers her father at a Ku Klux Klan meeting, in the same courthouse in which he defended Tom Robinson.

The release this summer of Lee’s Watchman seemed to many like a deep betrayal, as we find out through grown-up Scout’s eyes that her beloved father Atticus was a bigot. But this shock can lead to a deeper healing, and the release of Watchman is also an opportunity for edifying reflection on the process toward racial integration, the process of art making, the greater narrative of restoration, and, ultimately, the process of grace.

Mockingbird and Watchman can be laid side by side much like William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” next to “Songs of Experience,” although I do see that Watchman is a less developed work with a limited perspective, albeit by a gifted writer. The release of Watchman may turn out to be one of the greatest lessons in the process of how art is to be shaped, for better or worse, as a collaborative dance between an author and an editor, and later, between adoring fans and a deeply introspective, challenging author.

We as a culture had become Atticus-centered, focusing on Gregory Peck playing Atticus in the movie version of Mockingbird, which focuses less than Lee’s novel does on Scout’s inner journey. It’s clear from both books that what Harper Lee was writing both about Scout’s journey toward adulthood and about the insidious nature of racism, and it is clear that the image of Atticus we thought we knew was not the full picture, but one seen through an eye of innocence.

We live now in an era of cultural revisionism, of scandals and revelations that capture the headlines, of obsession with “uncovering the dark and horrendous secrets” of the past. Whether it be Snowden, Wiki leaks, Bill Cosby, or TV evangelists, we now seek out and desire to beat out of our culture the dark secret behind every bush. We should not be surprised, then, that Atticus turns out to be quite a bigot, or that Watchman was released in such a timely manner to a culture hungry for such scandals. What Watchman reveals, actually, is another approach to culture that might be called a culture of remembrance. An author mediates her memory, and rather than revise, she digs and lays it bare. Culture of remembrance sets an artist on a reconnaissance mission toward the recesses of her memory, toward home; but usually such a journey takes us away from home, away from our memory of innocence, and such a journey, no matter how subtle, is shocking and difficult.

And racism and bigotry are deep seated. When I was a student at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, I would often walk in the countryside to sketch and often would be gawked at by Caucasian boys who had never seen an Asian before. We knew of a Japanese-American scholar who faced resistance and unfair setbacks in academia throughout his career. In high school, I had to endure being called names during state championship soccer games, names which I can't repeat here. Those boys in Lewisburg would be about the same age as me today, or younger. Do you think that reading Harper Lee’s Mockingbird or having a non-white President would have changed the culture deeply seated in the hearts of those boys? I doubt that very much.

I also have been shocked by how much racism, or at least insensitivity, exists in church leadership. I've been shocked by casual comments made by pastors, and held back my judgment. So reading Watchman was, in a way, healing for me, in that at least the beast is identified and noted. Scout’s visceral horror would have been mine, in small doses, over many years, even in New York City.

Scout, now Jean Louise, discovers that she is color blind in Watchman:

Had she insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her: she was born color blind.

This exquisite end of Chapter 9, part 3, would have excited any editor, discovering then an unknown southern writer. The minute details of the previous passage (which is a must read) contrast with the macro view of the history of humanity played out in the confusion of Jean Louise’s adult mind, her struggle to hold on to her faith and her innocence, are delivered in the indelible voice of a particularly gifted writer. It was this voice, then, that the editor at Lippencott Publisher helped to cultivate.

A good editor is hard to find. In today’s publishing model of less and less profit margins, we do not cultivate editors like Tay Hohoff, whose recognition of Lee’s stature and her years of work with her are recounted in a New York Times article, “The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s 'To Kill a Mockinbird”:

*At Lippincott, the novel fell into the hands of Therese von Hohoff Torrey - known professionally as Tay Hohoff - a small, wiry veteran editor in her late 50s. Ms. Hohoff was impressed. “[T]he spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” she would later recount in a corporate history of Lippincott.

But as Ms. Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” During the next couple of years, she led Ms. Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled “To Kill a Mockingbird.”*

One wonders whether in today’s publishing climate, such a figure as Ms. Hohoff exists at all. The art of editing is a unique art of dance, stewarding a gifted voice into a “publishable” voice, whatever that means. In the case of Mockingbird, editing was the art of stewarding a “series of anecdotes” into an enduring novel, a masterpiece of American literature.

Watchman offers, then, an invaluable look at the process of writing and editing as it ought to be. My guess if that Ms. Hohoff might still say, if she were alive today, that the early manuscript is still not fit to publish. The publication of Watchman reveals much about how the publishing industry and culture has changed. We are privy now to the mind of a raw, developing writer, like dipping into a secret, leaked document. But if the HarperCollins had not published this as a book, I am sure that within a short time it would have been open-sourced on the internet. There is no “private” document anymore. If something exists, then it will be revealed.

*

I have been immersed for the last year and a half looking into and journeying with Shusaku Endo (1923-1995), whose novel Silence is now being turned into a film by Martin Scorsese (to be released fall of 2016). Silence depicts Portuguese missionaries in 17th-century Japan when Christianity was forbidden by the warlords of the day. One of the missionaries depicted is Father Ferreira, an admired figure among the younger missionaries, a giant of faith. The novel begins with two younger priests Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garrpe hearing the news that Fr. Ferreira, under the duress of the torture, has apostatized and now has taken a Buddhist Japanese name.

Silence is the journey toward the inevitable demise of the younger priests who could not believe the news of their hero’s downfall, and endeavor to enter the forbidden land to seek out the truth. Much like we endeavor to find the original Atticus Finch character by reading Watchman, they risk their lives (and faith) by journeying into Japan of the 17th century. Fr. Ferreira turns out to have done exactly what the news reported, and this disappointment leads to the demise of the younger priests as well. My book Silence and Beauty (IVPress, due out next year) traces their journeys and beyond. Endo reveals a deeper journey of compassion and grace, if the reader can bear to read Silence to the end, including the often neglected “Appendix.”

What is interesting is that Fr. Ferreira, as depicted by Endo in Silence, is rather wavering, cynical and Judas-like-a dark shadow in the story, but Endo wrote a play called Golden Country after the success of Silence in which Fr. Ferreira becomes a different character, more noble and courageous. The parallels of Endo’s journey and Ms. Lee’s struck me as resonant. An author often tests out different ways that a same character could be portrayed in the story, and may depict somewhat contradictory characters that may be confusing to the readers.

**

Regardless of what we think of Atticus now, or Fr. Ferreira, we have a culture that worship heroes, and do not know what to do with failures of our leaders. Intentionally or not, both of these authors play with how we project our ideals into the characters, and part of the power of these stories is the discovery of our own projection refracted into their characters. Do we then, as readers, have to suspend how we view one version (1.0) in order to appreciate the new version (2.0)?

Did we project into Atticus (especially through Gregory Peck’s version) something not warranted in Mockingbird? Being curious, I read through Mockingbird with a new perspective formed by reading Watchman.

Mockingbird’s Atticus is different from Watchman’s Atticus, in the same way that Fr. Ferreira is different in Silence than in Golden Country. But in the case of Mockingbird it was the 2.0 version that we were exposed to first; where in Endo’s case, the Fr. Ferreira 1.0 in Silence will be the most remembered and the basis of how we view Fr. Ferreira in Golden Country is affected by Silence. We have quite a unique case in the release of Watchman. Harper Lee created the 2.0 without having to worry about the 1.0 version affecting the readers' preconception. As far as Lee was concerned, Watchman was a draft. The Atticus Finch character developed in Mockingbird (Atticus 2.0) may be what she desired for the public to receive. Even so, aside from Ms. Lee’s ultimate wishes, we as readers also have the right to determine the interpretive direction of reading a novel (or two, in this case). Even after reading Mockingbird again, after reading Watchman for the first time, I am still left with two diverse characters of Atticus.

Saying that Atticus Finch is a bigot is akin to saying that after retirement, Bill the Nye Science Guy decided that science, after all, was not something worthwhile to pursue, and he'd hated science all along. The 1.0 and 2.0 are not the same characters. The whole character of Atticus 2.0 is built upon the premise of his color-blind acceptance of Tom Robinson; it quite clear from Mockingbird that Harper Lee desired the book to be about that courageous battle.

This type of introspection into our projection of Atticus leads to a bigger question. Scout connects Atticus with God, and Jean Louise struggles with her faith because of her discovery of her father’s dark side: Do we project the same kind of innocence in our faith? Did we believe in a good God in our innocence, and then, disappointed with what we see around us, come to regard the world as conclusive evidence that a “good God” does not exist? In other words, do we struggle in our journey of faith in a way that Scout/Jean Louise in Watchman struggles in her faith, which seemed to connect Atticus, her father, with God? Jesus stated rather bluntly that “If anyone causes one of these little ones - those who believe in me - to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). We live in a world in which such millstones are tied around many public figures, from priests to publishers to politicians. Is this kind of disillusionment what Ms. Lee was after in writing the initial manuscript? And perhaps more importantly, did her decision to change Atticus into a noble human being reflect a kind of recognition of the stewardship toward the “world that ought to be”? This ideal of “the world that ought to be” would have been stated in the mission statement of the Quaker school Ms. Hohoff have attended as a high schooler (Friends Brooklyn School). Quaker schools and gatherings would have been a potent place to ignite our march toward racial equality. Did the Quaker influenced editor have something to do with the transformation of Atticus Finch?

Harper Lee’s journey toward the development of a novel does indeed overlap with our journey of faith, and reveal much about our struggles. God the Artist did create in love, entrusting God’s Children to steward Creation as artists with a small “a.” We are small echoes of a grand symphony. There is an expectation of promise and goodness in Creation (echoed in Noah’s rainbow) that God will be faithful to carry out. But in our fallen human terms, such a promise as artists with small “a” is fragmented, limited or trapped in the reality of the conditions we create. To be faithful might be to scrap the original and start over. If Atticus 2.0 turns out to be noble and kind as a result of that growing process, that does not mean that Atticus 2.0 is of less value. It also does not render Atticus 1.0 invalid either. Actually, there may be more that we can learn from the revealing of Atticus 1.0 than from the 2.0 version alone. Our efforts to puzzle through how the two fit together may suggest, for instance, that our understanding of God’s being might be a process parallel to what Ms. Lee did with an editor’s suggestion: We need to see God not just through the broken lens of experience, but to choose to reactivate our eyes of innocence as Children of God. Rather than staying in our cynical shell of being orphans of faith, in our new identity as heirs of the Creator, we can then be free to wrestle with the “editing process” of sanctification to speak toward the promise of fulfillment, rather than letting disappointments, failures and broken promises define our narratives.

What we do with our art reveals a path of faith toward a future of our society, of the “world that ought to be,” even if that path was unintended. An author has the power to change a character from a bigot to a hero, but careful attention must be paid to such a process, because that power of transformation, if not accounted for by a greater stewardship (in this case, by a good Quaker editor), would create a vacuum in the narrative that could come back to haunt us. We are all shocked to find a different Atticus today, but this haunting can be deeply edifying if we appreciate the process.

We need to remember and be thankful that version 1.0 did not get released first. If Mockingbird was the result of good and firm editing, then Watchman can teach us how to apply this kind of transformation in our faith journeys. God does value the stories of our lives, but has the authority to re-frame our limited perspectives with a greater purpose in mind. Perhaps the old Atticus we have come to love over the years is so powerful because the author went through a stage of purging, delving into the depth of her disappointments. In the same way that C.S. Lewis is a most effective Christian witness because he was a devout atheist first, Atticus' character became a powerful witness, a true Watchman, because Lee was determined to transform him from a true bigot into an authentic hero.

Of course, some have cried foul, saying that this was “elder abuse” of an author unable to clearly decide what to do — that the publisher, now taking full advantage of her fame, wanted desperately to release the novel to meet the hungry bottom line. Some have refused to read Watchman. Some cynically say, “see, there are no heroes anymore,” or argue that Watchman should never have been released.

I contend that Watchman is worth reading, not because it is a superior novel to Mockingbird, but as a tale of experience that leads back toward compassion and sanctification. As Michiko Kikutani notes in her New York Times review, this compassion is turned against one who sees the plight of the oppressed to now the face of bigotry, her own father; even through a fallen Atticus, Jean Louis learns to love. What her uncle Jack says, repeating what they all heard in a church service from Isaiah 26:6, resonates still as a powerful voice of clarity in the confusion, spoken through a flawed character: “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman is his conscience.” A watchman is a prophet who weeps over the sins of her forefathers. We should not be afraid to turn the pages of a young, but powerfully prophetic, author, still unpolished, reckoning so truthfully with the reality of brokenness that even an adoring public could not stop that “tale of sound and fury” from being told. Harper Lee’s view of deep-seated racism in this country back in the '50s certainly feels prophetic today. The Charleston massacre proves that her intuition was right. The innocence of Scout in Mockingbird and the cynicism of Jean Louise in Watchman meets head to head in the release of the book. Like Jean Louise, what we know now, we were protected from in our innocence. Now we know the truth, and we can still believe that “truth can set you free.” (John 8:22)

Thus, refracting in the pages of Mockingbird and Watchman are the mystery of an author’s journey, and of the two Atticus Finches presented to us. Perhaps rather than debating which version is more potent and demanding “will the real Atticus please stand up!” we should delve into our own conscience, and our nation’s conscience, to let these two Atticuses co-exist. Perhaps that is the journey of growing up, and growing our imagination toward seeing the greater narrative that guides our lives. The focus always is, in both versions, on Scout and Jean Louise, the voice of innocence and of experience, and the faithful border-stalker of our fallen culture.