“Fiction can transform a particular history into art of universal significance,” author and Kappa Alpha Professor of English Robert Morgan said Nov. 19 in “History and Fiction: The Growth of an Artist – Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set A Watchman’,” a talk in Goldwin Smith Hall.
Prior to its publication this year, “Go Set a Watchman,” written in 1957, was promoted as a sequel to Lee’s beloved “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Discovered in 2011 among Lee’s papers, the book is actually an abandoned early manuscript that Lee would rework and develop into her classic 1960 novel.
“When I got a copy of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ and began reading it, I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Morgan said. “After all the anticipation and almost strident response of the reviewers, I wondered if it was possible to be objective …As I began reading, I was struck by the mildness of the story.”
In the manuscript, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the child narrator of “Mockingbird,” is a young woman in the 1950s who returns to Alabama from New York.
“Lee tells the story like a modern-day Jane Austen – witty, ironic, affectionate, realistic. Jean Louise has become a career girl in the city and she still returns to her roots – loving the South, but irritated by its backward ways,” Morgan said.
Jean Louise becomes disillusioned with her hometown and with her father, Atticus Finch, who is depicted as a segregationist. The principled lawyer who defends an innocent black man in the 1930s is only seen in flashback in “Watchman”; Lee would develop that Atticus further in “Mockingbird.”
“When ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was published in 1960 it set off a phenomenon in modern fiction. The novel quickly became a bestseller, it was widely reviewed, admired, talked about,” Morgan said. “The novel revealed the best in people and seemed to bring out the best in people. Part of the pleasure of reading Harper Lee’s work is a sense of discovery and rediscovery of a gentler way of life.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird” also arrived at a crucial time of change, Morgan said: “Six years after Brown vs. the Board of Education ended legal segregation, here was a novel that seemed to bring black people and white people together.”
“The timing of publishing ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ could not have been better,” he said. “Just as the country was about to face ugly scenes on television – police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators, demonstrators knocked over by fire hoses, Freedom Riders beaten and killed – here was a story of a prominent white man who put his career and, as it turns out, the safety of his family on the line to defend an innocent black man.”
Comparing the books, Morgan said, “provides a telling lesson in the art of novel writing. … As Lee revised her first novel, the character of Atticus grew as her mastery of the art of fiction grew, as her writer’s conscience grew.”
“There is no foreword or afterword” in the new book, he said. “We have been told that Harper Lee, who now resides in a nursing home in Alabama, wanted this earlier novel published – but no one has explained why she wanted it published now. The novel contains some of her most brilliant writing but also some of her worst.”
“… We can take the publication of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as a lesson in the growth of an artist, the growth of a conscience and the enduring power of narrative,” he concluded. “It is also an example of the way history can be transformed to teach and inspire.”
Morgan’s talk was the inaugural event of “In A Word,” a once-a-semester series featuring writers on the Creative Writing Program faculty, “who are always searching for that one word,” said Helena Viramontes, director of creative writing.
The next event, in the spring, will feature a conversation between Alice Fulton and Roger Gilbert.
This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.