Translate? Traduire? übersetzen? ?לתרגם Traducir? Tradurre?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Go Set A Watchman--Insight into the Real Harper Lee, and an Ad Hoc critique Group

Despite life intervening--summer, children, teaching swimming and the comedy routine of trying to replace that bathroom faucet Week 3--I am now up to page 75 in Harper Lee's first draft of Go Set A Watchman, which was released yesterday. I'm excited to have Ms. Lee as a member of our ad hoc critique group. In the meantime, it seems, we are all getting to know Ms. Lee better--her real life rather than her fictional life.  It's a strange feeling, almost like spending time in town and slowly coming to know a neighbor, since Go Set A Watchman is obviously far more of a Roman A Clef than To Kill A Mockingbird.

I say this because, for instance, the dramatic center of To Kill A Mockingbird is Atticus Finch's legal representation of Tom Robinson, a black man who stands accused of raping a white woman. In 1919, Harper's father, Amasa Lee, had been practicing law for only four years when he was appointed to represent two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. (This is mentioned early in Mockingbird--“His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County jail. ... Atticus was present at their departure, an occasion that was probably the beginning of my father’s profound distaste for the practice of criminal law.”)

It's also true that, from November 1933 to July 1934, a black man named Walter Lett was arrested and tried for raping a white woman named Naomi Lowery, despite strong evidence that Lett was innocent. Amasa Lee was editor and publisher of the town's newspaper, the Monroe Journal, which covered the case from the night of the reported rape through the trial's end, which occurred when Harper Lee was eight years old. 

In Lett's case, the jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced him to death, but there was a letter-writing campaign from "many leading citizens of Monroe County," said citizens believing that evidence had not been established to find Lett guilty, and this apparently influenced the Alabama Board of Pardons reduced Mr. Lett's sentence to life imprisonment, which wasn't long. Mr. Lett died in prison in 1937 of tuberculosis, which makes me very sad, since by 1937, penicillin was around for treatment of TB. 

Wouldn't it be fascinating to read the trial transcripts from Mr. Lett's trial? Well, we can't, because they have disappeared. But if some intrepid souls would post online Amasa Lee's newspaper coverage of the trial, the world would be forever grateful. 

I promised that I would approach this like a real critique group, starting with what I liked about the work that I am reading. So here goes:

I love this version of Jean Louise Finch. The possessor of a dry sense of humor and a lovely sense of the ridiculous, she is funny, quirky, battling with technology, getting locked in her train's folding bed, fighting against conformity (insisting on wearing slacks in a town where dresses are de rigeur,) and ducking coming home both to marry, to work and most especially, to care for her father after her brother, Jem's sudden death two years before. 

She also struggles to find her place in the world in ways both direct and indirect. She speaks out softly to an interfering relative-- ("Aunty," she said cordially," why don't you go pee in your hat?") and manipulates her possible future fiancé with humor, finesse and bold strokes. 

At page 75, I don't have any idea what she's doing in New York City, apart from passing commentary when her aunt suggests she return to Macomb to live "you like to paint, don't you?" implying that Jean Louise could dabble in her spare time, but there, the comparison is also stretched--"To Alexandra, there was a distinct and distasteful difference between one who paints and a painter, one who writes and a writer." And our author is not yet specific as to which one Jean Louise is pursuing. 

I'm very impressed with her creation of such a clear and inviting character in Jean Louise. My personal experience with writing characters based on me is that it takes pass after pass and me actually interviewing friends and family about my personality in order to create someone my readers can identify with, yet here she is, showing us this woman in all her quirks, and she seems to make us like her effortlessly. 

I also find myself likely Henry Clinton and Atticus Finch, particularly Atticus as a father. His humor, his patience, his supportiveness of a non-traditional daughter, all come shining through. Of course, I'm only up to page 75, and its clear there are stormy waters ahead for both characters. 

The flashback to childhood is riveting, particularly when the children play at holding a revival meeting in Miss Rachel's fish pond. I can well imagine an editor saying, "This stuff is golden. Can you give me more of it?" 

The character of Aunt Alexandra is clear, funny and irritating. When she begins her aria on the facts of life, the writing soars. "Fine a boy" as Atticus' clerk and Jean Louise' suitor is, "the trash won't wash out of him. Have you ever noticed how he licks his fingers when he eats cake? Trash. Have you ever seen him cough without covering his mouth? Trash. Did you know he got a girl in trouble at the University? Trash. Have you ever watched him pick his nose when he didn't think anybody was looking? Trash--" This stuff is marvelous. 

As are the details about life in the south, the casual things that catch the eye and the heart, like the fact that Calpurnia, the colored maid, who could "speak Jeff Davis' English as well as anybody," drops her verbs in the presence of guests; that the Old Finch House, now a private gambling hell for businessmen from Mobile, was used for years not just for Finch family reunions, but for Negro baseball games, Klan meetings, in the Klan's "halcyon days," and a Knight's tournament "held in Atticus' time in which the gentlemen of the county jousted for the honor of carrying their ladies into Maycomb for a great banquet." 

There are also a lot of descriptions and back story about various locations, family members, the creation of the town of Maycomb, etc that I would prefer to be moved later, condensed, or mentioned each time as illumination of how much history lives on in the lives of Maycombites, so that every corner passed contains a wealth of stories both explaining and placing limitations on the inhabitants thereof. 

I am still fascinated by the fact that Mama is out of the picture. Mental illness, drug abuse, these were the unspokens. Remember, A Long Day's Journey Into Night, which deals so specifically with Eugene O'Neill's family's addictions to alcohol and his mother's addition to morphine, was completed in 1942, but it was not to be published until 25 years after his death--O'Neill had a sealed copy placed in the document vault of Random House with those instructions. It was only because O'Neil''s third wife, Carlotta Monterey skirted the agreement by transferring the rights of the play to Yale University, that the play was first performed in 1956.

 In To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout and Jem's mother is dead, though the real Lee's mother being unable to leave the house and not speaking for many years during one's childhood. Here, so far, there is a passing melancholy, a mention of seeing her mother's things moved to the new house after the grief of a loss--in this case, it seems the sudden death, barely mentioned, of brother, Jem. 

I do have editing mentioned all over the page, as well as, "Love this." I look forward to hearing from others and to sharing more ideas as I am able to read further. 

No comments:

Post a Comment