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Better Off Unpublished? Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

Better Off Unpublished? Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

Jul 27 2015

Gwendolyn Jones HaroldBy Gwendolyn Jones Harold, Ph.D., Clayton State University

Last week, Harper “Nelle” Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), published her long-anticipated second novel, Go Set a Watchman. Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins, stunned the literary world last February with the announcement that Lee would publish a previously unknown novel, featuring many of the same beloved characters from her masterpiece, Mockingbird. Since then delighted fans and scholars have waited impatiently for this revelatory new work that could “realign the literary universe.” But 55 years is a long time to wait and Mockingbird, a literary tour-de-force, is a hard act to follow.

Voted one of the most influential novels of the 20th century and translated into more than 40 languages, Mockingbird has sold more 40 million copies world-wide. Because it continues to sell in excess of a million copies a year, Mockingbird has never been out of print, a claim that many other influential novelists cannot make of their work, including William Faulkner, who won the Nobel Prize for literature. A year after Mockingbird won the Pulitzer, it was immortalized in film, winning several academy awards, including best actor for Gregory Peck, who portrays Atticus Finch, the courageous Alabama attorney who defends an African American man falsely accused of raping a white woman in the segregated South of the 1930s. Thus, in both film and print, Atticus Finch, representing rare moral courage, is one of our greatest heroes and a part of our collective American identity.   

In the tumultuous whirlwind of literary stardom that followed the overwhelming success of Mockingbird, Lee herself, under pressure from publishers and fans, understood only too well the daunting task of producing a second novel worthy of Mockingbird. When one of her cousins questioned her about writing another book, she reportedly admitted, “When you have a hit like that, you can’t go anywhere but down.” Lee, humbled by her celebrity status, told a reporter in 1964 that she had “sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it [Mockingbird] enough to give me encouragement.” But Lee stopped giving interviews altogether; the years passed and she published a few magazine articles but not a second novel. Her public appearances were infrequent. In 2007, however, she made a rare public appearance at the White House when she accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her “outstanding contribution to America's literary tradition.” The award marked an official recognition of the way Mockingbird “helped focus the nation on the turbulent struggle for equality" during the Civil Rights era. Lee, however, gave only a short speech, saying, “Well, it’s better to be silent than be a fool.”

Lee, for the most part, has kept her silence about the controversial second novel as well, leaving fans and scholars frustrated and puzzled. Mockingbird, told from “Scout” Finch’s first person point of view, is an intimate, unaffected novel that bravely tackles issues of race, gender and class through a child’s eyes. Once again, the central character in Watchman is Jean Louise Finch, but now she’s 26 and has journeyed from her current home in New York to visit her aging father, Atticus, in Maycomb, Alabama (the fictional name for Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown). Watchman, narrated from a third-person point of view, lacks the spontaneous familiarity, the magic, of Mockingbird. Several important characters are absent, including Scout’s brother Jem, who has died of a heart attack, and the fascinating recluse Boo Radley. These quirky interesting characters are replaced by a love interest for Jean Louise, a young lawyer, who works for Atticus, but their love scenes are stiff, their dialogue forced and unbelievable. The most shocking change is Scout’s father, Atticus, who is not the character we know and love from Mockingbird. Watchman’s 72-year-old Atticus is frail in body and mind; weak from rheumatoid arthritis, he can barely feed himself. Worse, he is no longer the moral center of Maycomb, Alabama; he holds disturbing segregationist views and is a member of a local all-white citizen’s council. After Jean Louise learns of her father’s racist views, she confronts him and much yelling and screaming ensues between daughter and father, but nothing is resolved. The novel never reaches a climax, such as we have with the trial and concluding chapters in Mockingbird. Of course, the Atticus in Watchman has never defended Tom Robinson or even shot a mad dog; he’s ineffectual and certainly not heroic.

The glaring contradictions between the two novels are, however, understandable. Watchman, as it turns out, is not a sequel to Mockingbird, but as Lee describes it, “the parent” of her masterpiece. More a collection of vignettes or short stories than an actual novel, Watchman is the first draft of Mockingbird. In 1957 three years before the release of Mockingbird, Tay Hohoff, who would become Lee’s editor, received the manuscript, Go Set a Watchman. Recognizing glimpses of genius, especially in the scenes where Jean Louise recalls her childhood, Hohoff encouraged Lee to re-write Watchman from the perspective of Scout as a young child. For almost three years, Hohoff worked with Lee, who rewrote most of Watchman, creating the classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. A few descriptive passages are the same in both novels, but Mockingbird is essentially a separate work of art. 

The question remains, then: why would Harper Lee release an old manuscript that may actually harm her own reputation and that of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird? We may never know the complete answer to this question because Lee will not grant interviews and publicly speaks only through her attorney, Tonja Carter, who oversaw the publication of Watchman. According to Carter, the manuscript of Watchman, once thought lost, was discovered in 2014 in a “secure place” and attached to an original typescript of Mockingbird. Lee thought Watchman’s manuscript was lost, but decided to publish it after some consideration. In a public statement reminiscent of her original success with Mockingbird, Lee humbly describes her decision to publish Watchman: “I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed to hear that this will now be published.”

Some, however, have been skeptical of the timing of the new novel’s release. Lee, partially deaf and blind, is now 89 and lives in an assisted care facility in Monroeville, Alabama. And Lee’s trusted advisor and protector, her sister Alice, who was also an attorney, passed away only a few months before Watchman’s release. But questions about Lee’s ability to consent to publish were quelled somewhat after an Alabama state investigation found that she is not the victim of elder abuse and fully capable of making her own decisions. It was Lee’s choice, for example, to publish Watchman with only light editing. And HarperCollins executives, who have visited Lee in Monroeville, stated that she is enthusiastic about Watchman’s publication. Many of Lee’s friends also support her decision to publish. A close personal friend, Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus at Auburn University, told PBS that the feisty Lee understands exactly what is going on. According to Flynt, when asked about the furor over the new book, Lee retorted, “Same damn town, same damned people as I wrote about in Mockingbird.” Perhaps Lee is right, but Watchman lacks the authentic magic of Mockingbird – it’s not the same novel, only a colorless prototype that should have remained in manuscript.   

About the author:

Gwendolyn Jones Harold, Ph.D., is professor of English and teaches southern literature at Clayton State University in Morrow, Ga. Her most recent publication, “The Virginia Novel II,” in The History of Virginia Literature, was published by Cambridge University Press this year. 

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