Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman sets up controversy


If ever a novel demonstrated the ability of its author to create characters that leave the page and take on a life of their own, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960did just that. Hence, the recently released follow-up novel, Go Set a Watchman, arrives fraught with expectations about the lives of Scout and Atticus.

When last we saw these iconic characters they had settled in an idyllic epilogue to the story that transpired over 3 summers in tiny Maycomb, AL during the Depression.

Atticus stood for truth and justice even when the legal system failed. The children got Boo to come out. Sheltered by their loving father, Scout and Jem grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with readers everywhere.

Readers can still imagine Scout tucked in her bed, Atticus reading to her––even though her teacher disapproves.

Now here comes a Watchman

In Watchman, Scout returns to Maycomb, her fifth visit home since living in New York.

The reader watches Jean Louise’s images from her childhood shattered by what she sees mirrored and distorted in the life of her beloved father. Atticus has become a Southern racist.

Not so hard for this reader to imagine for the times and place this book describes.IMG_6946

Only in TKAM, Atticus was supposed to live happily ever after, morally god-like above his peers and all men everywhere, and end up with a statue tribute on the courthouse square.

Where Watchman picks up, Atticus is 72-years-old, struggling with debilitating arthristis. Crochety, comes to mind. I mean, who isn’t by age 72? And too, (spoiler alert) his son Jem has died, apparently afflicted with the same heart defect that took their mother when Scout was 2-years-old. Aunt Alexandra and Atticus, brother and sister, live in a newer house, not the one Scout grew up in. Maycomb has changed.

POV:  First person narrative vs. third person omniscient

Remember Reader, this so-called “recently discovered” manuscript by Harper Lee precedes the final version of To Kill a Mockingbird, even though the story takes place 20 years later.

This Washington Post article published in February 2015, “To shill a Mockingbird:  How a manuscript’s discovery became Harper Lee’s ‘new’ novel” actually shows the editor’s card indicating receipt of the first manuscript Harper Lee submitted titled, Go Set a Watchman. Later on, “Atticus” became the working title for what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Somewhere along the road to publication, Lee’s editor advised her to rewrite her story from the child’s viewpoint rather than the adult’s.

Third-person, omniscient narrator of the Watchman story puts thoughts in Scout’s head as well as words in her mouth. Instead of the reader discovering truths about the world, as the child Scout did, this narrator places a pulpit in front of Jean Louise Finch.

“Had she been able to think, Jean Louise might have prevented events to come by considering the day’s occurrences in terms of a recurring story as old as time:  the chapter which concerned her began two hundred years ago and was played out in a proud society the bloodiest war and harshest peace in modern history could not destroy, returning to be played out again on private ground in the twilight of a civilization no wars and no peace could save.

Had she insight, could she have pierced the barriers of her highly selective, insular world, she may have discovered that all her life she had been with a visual defect which had gone unnoticed and neglected by herself and by those closest to her:  she was born color blind” (122).

Do what?

What a mess. I have difficulty believing that Harper Lee wrote that convoluted social commentary. And if Harper Lee did write those words, Anne Lamott’s comment about *!#+* first drafts come to mind. (cf. Bird by Bird)

And so do words from the book of Job:  “Who is this that darkens counsel with words without knowledge?”

Who is this pontificator? It can’t be Scout. Please say it isn’t Jean Louise Finch.

Instead of following Jean Louise along her path of coming-of-age lessons she learned about life in Mockingbird, in Watchman the character shows herself the sophisticated adult prepared to teach everyone else a lesson.

Mockingbird did not preach. Similar to Mark Twain’s classic apologetic against racism (Huckleberry Finn), neither book tells people what to think or believe.

Instead, believable characters show up and readers react as they might to known characters and situations in their own lives––a crucial aspect of the best storytelling.

Will the real Harper Lee please stand up?

Harper Lee doesn’t need to make a boat payment.

Until now, 55 years after the release of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee refused to write, or at least publish another novel.

And now Watchman appears under mysterious and controversial circumstances that make at least some readers, including me, question whether or not she wrote it. Or wrote all of it? Or has some heavy-handed editing taken place? Or a shell game, shuffling the seemingly unrelated stories that Harper Lee first submitted in 1957?

Nelle Harper Lee’s sister Alice died last November and that could have something to do with Lee’s willingness to release to the world this story-version of Scout as an adult. Or the timing could be related.

Then, too, there are questions about Lee’s competence to give consent and the people who advise her. What do these advisers gain from the publication of Go Set a Watchman?

God help the person who twisted Harper Lee’s arm, that is, if any arm-twisting was involved.

Frankly, this novel doesn’t sound like Lee’s writing before page 100. Sometimes writers need to warm up, though, find their voice, and with chapter 8, the writing starts to lift off the page. From there, as far as I’ve read to page 182 (fewer than 100 pages left), the author has managed to pull this reader into the familiar world created in Mockingbird. But it’s been trudge, trudge most of the way.

Reminds me of watching an A-list actress in a B-movie.

Maybe if I hadn’t been primed to question the book’s authenticity, I might have read it with less scrutiny. Certainly I would have been less inclined to write down any criticism, or to share with others my thoughts publicly.

As Watchman begins, Scout travels by train from New York––the writer’s pace matching this dated mode of transportation. Easing into this story fails to echo the style displayed in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yawn. Turn out the light. Sleep.

Will readers ever know?

Why? Why after winning the Pulitzer in 1960 and refusing for more than 5 decades to write/publish/release another book did Harper Lee let loose into the literary world a “rest of the story” set to mar her masterpiece?

From where I sit to read and write, this book looks like marketing mayhem by people behind the scenes who capitalize not just on Lee’s good name but on the names of Scout and Atticus too.

Back in February when the news first broke about “Watchman,” again from The Washington Post article, “To shill a Mockingbird …, ” Charles J. Shields, who wrote the biography “Mockingbird” in 2007, responded to the publisher’s explanation that Watchman was part of a planned trilogy saying, “A trilogy is way more ambitious than anything Lee was capable of, or would have the temerity to suggest. . . . ‘Watchman,’ ‘Atticus,’ ‘Mockingbird’ — these were all iterations of the same book.” That’s what I think.

I think the bulk of this “new” book is edits from the old one.

Go Set a Watchman doesn’t add to the story. It takes away.

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