Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman

| September 18, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite work of fiction.  Maybe that’s because it’s one of the first classics I chose to read rather than being forced to in school.  Maybe it’s because I was in a stage version of the play when I started college (I played the villain Bob Ewell, and it’s a huge point of pride for me).  Maybe it’s simply because even though I can’t relate to the themes of racism or the southern sensibility, Lee does such a wonderful job of drawing you into that world and make you care about characters that she’s creating.

This new documentary from Mary McDonagh Murphy is actually an expansion of another documentary produced a few years ago called Hey Boo.  The film discusses Lee’s fascinating life of leaving the south to live in New York City and is basically supported for a year by her friends to let her write whatever she wanted.  The end result of this period of time was two manuscripts:  one that would be developed into the cultural phenomenon To Kill a Mockingbird and another called Go Set a Watchman, which was written first, but is a sequel to Lee’s magnum opus.  Most of the film tells the story of Mockingbird‘s cultural impact over the past 50 years, as well as Lee’s upbringing and her ironic reclusion from society for decades doing God knows what.  In a radio interview she did years ago, she said she was writing a new novel and it was a slow process like the development of Mockingbird.  Since Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird, it stands to reason that there is another novel sitting around her apartment today.

The discovery of the Watchman manuscript in a safety deposit box last year threw the literary world into a buzz.  Lee herself thought the manuscript was lost forever since she sent it to a publisher and it disappeared over 50 years ago.  I haven’t read Lee’s “new” novel as I’ve been a little busy lately, and maybe I’ve been putting it off subconsciously because of mixed reviews about odd choices made for the Atticus character and specifically his feelings towards African Americans, so I feel like it’s important to read as a massive discovery for American literature, but now I’m also concerned about it tainting my favorite novel in some way.  I’ll get to it soon, maybe over Christmas break where any melancholy the novel creates in me will at least be appropriate given Lee’s feelings about the holidays (according to the documentary).

The documentary is really interesting because Lee herself is really interesting.  Her impact on American culture, her relationship with Truman Capote, her charismatic sister, and her Boo Radley-like hiding from society all make for a compelling true story about one of the best fiction writers who ever lived.

Available on DVD from First Run Features on September 22.

About the Author:

Joe Ketchum Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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