An Open Letter: The Tongue of the Wise
Dear Wade and Charles,
Although the page counter for my blog indicates otherwise, it would seem that only you two have read my comments regarding Go Set a Watchman. And you may not know each other, but both of you have an interest in all things Harper Lee as do I. So as Joan Rivers was fond of saying, “Let’s talk.”
Neither of you will be surprised to know that I’m making this public or that I dare borrow scripture for the title. After all, aren’t we about to discuss a novel with a similar genesis?
My first disclaimer is that I haven’t read a single review by anyone who has read the book except that of Nancy Anderson. Anderson, retired professor of English, is a scholar of the work of Harper Lee and other southern writers who asserted long ago that Lee had written more. Know, Wade and Charles, that I was intentional about this so that I wouldn’t allow the opinion of others to color mine. I’m addressing, not you specifically here, but offering my opinions about those dubious, questioning folks, quick to accuse or criticize in any way either the subject matter or craft of Go Set A Watchman, i.e., I’m setting myself up as Watchwoman for Watchman. (That won’t surprise you either!)
Before granting such ones even the courtesy of conversation, I will pose a few questions of them: Have you ever written a novel? Have you ever started a novel and written as much as 200 pages of it? Have you written as many as two novels? How old are you? Come back to me with your first 200 pages and I’ll be happy to discuss any or all criticisms you may have.
reading does count as your license to critique to some degree, if you read in several genres and if you read within the novel genre both literary novels and what I term page-turners, the single-shot plot-laden novels.
Still with me, guys? To start our discussion, let’s consider both the subject matter/theme and the craft—the larger picture before we start a magnified look.
Subject and my say on it: Jean Louise Finch, the grownup Scout, mulls over a sentence from her learned, aging Uncle Jack in which he has quoted three authors in one sentence. She’s a bit surprised that it actually makes sense to her. I hope that what I think about this book’s themes at this point will make a little sense written in a similar sentence: It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can’t go home again; yet no man is an island.
On craft: Voice is not always evident and rarely consistent in an early draft. Newly-drawn characters may not be distinguishable from one another in dialogue because their speech patterns are so similar. It is in the refining of that character based on her interaction with others that the character takes on singularity.
It has been said, in fact, that there is no good writing, but only good re-writing. I’m not clear on just how much time there was between the surfacing of Watchman and its actual publication. That it was there for years and had been forgotten or misplaced is so easy to understand. Anybody who’s been a writer for any length of time will have boxes of manuscripts at various stages of revision. That, too, is a universally known truth. Another such truth is that poor health can impede, scotch, or totally squelch creativity. Survival at some point becomes utmost.
Sena Jeter Naslund, Director of the MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University and author of nine novels and two collections of stories, said in a July meeting of Alabama Writers’ Conclave in Fairhope that voice is the writer’s attitude toward his subject, his audience, and himself. She related the story of how during the writing of Ahab’s Wife, she “heard” her protagonist Una speak what became the very first engaging sentence of the novel: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Time was required to develop a voice as clear and inimitable as Naslund’s Una.
I’m guessing the same was true for Lee’s development of her renowned and revered Scout. It is my understanding that Watchman was what was left of the anatomy of a novel with its younger ribs of Jean Louise stripped away and revised to create Scout and To Kill a Mockingbird. Time and health have both been obstacles in Lee’s bringing forth this long-undisclosed treasure of the voice of Jean Louise.
Not to be ignored are the truths in this gift to the world, albeit belated. To excerpt Proverbs 12: 18. “...the tongue of the wise brings healing/Truthful lips endure forever/....”
Your turn, fellows.