Back in May, I wrote about the controversy before Go Set a Watchman, the “new” novel by Harper Lee, was released. Like many others, I was apprehensive about the reasons for publishing it and sad that it might tarnish the reputation of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Those fears were realized in July when the book came out. The book was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Some see it as a sequel to Mockingbird because Scout is an adult, but in a way it is a a prequel, or at least a very rough draft of Mockingbird.
This manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was written in the mid-1950s and submitted and rejected by publishers. That seems fully justified. It is not well written and in desperate need of editing and revision.
What an editor did see of worth in it were the few passages about the much younger Jean Louise “Scout” and the her father, Atticus. The editor’s advice was to start over and write that story from the perspective of the innocent and naïve girl writing about a father she idolized.
We know Mockingbird for the trial of Tom Robinson, but a good part of the pleasure in the book are the stories about Scout, her older brother Jem, and their friend Dill and the adventures of their summers. All of that pleasure is gone from Watchman.
About five years after submitting the first manuscript,the rewrite in the form of To Kill a Mockingbird was published (1960).
As a publisher, I’m sure the Rupert Murdoch-owned house Harper Collins was very pleased with the book. Though the reviews were very harsh overall, it sold more than 1.1 million copies in a week’s time, making it the “fastest-selling book in company history.” It went to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.
I read it. As a teacher who taught Mockingbird for many times and loved it and loved the way students almost always took to it, I had to read it.
It was terrible.
Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post said the book was “not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good, or even a finished book… [T]he writing is laughably bad. … This should not have been published. It’s 280 pages in desperate need of an editor.”
It seemed that for many people who loved TKAM it was not Harper Lee’s reputation that took a pounding but the reputation of Atticus. Ironically, that is pretty much what the book is about. Scout realizes that the father she imagined with his high ideals and fairness was really a segregationist, a racist with many of the same out-of-date beliefs that she wanted to escape when she left the south and went to liberal New York City to live.
The calm, quiet Atticus we knew from the book (who is certainly embodied by the Gregory Peck film version that even more people know) is indeed someone viewed through young and naïve eyes.
If in the 1970s, Harper Lee had published a much revised and edited version of Watchman, I think it might have been a good thing. It actually makes sense that Scout would, after getting older and living in New York City, view her hometown, neighbors and father very differently. And the American reading public and country had also changed.
For me, it would have been better for readers and Harper Lee if the original manuscript had been burned. But maybe I am just being protective of the Atticus and Scout I first knew.
Two months after Harper’s lawyer/caregiver sister died, came the announcement of the new book. Harper Lee, 89, had a stroke 8 years ago and is blind and is in assisted living.
The book’s title – and this post’s title – are from the Bible (Isaiah 21:6) “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” What I see should not have happened if Harper Lee had a watchman like her sister to protect her.