Since the printing press itself was invented, people in the editing and publishing industry have made major mistakes when denying or accepting the writing of authors. From those who passed up “The Catcher in the Rye,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Animal Farm,” to the 12 different times that the entire “Harry Potter” series was rejected, publishers have certainly been wrong about sending a work back to the editing office.
However, when Harper Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff sent “Go Set a Watchman” back to the drawing board in 1957, she may have been on to something.
Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” broke records in July when it became the fastest-selling novel ever to be published by HarperCollins, and the quickest preordered by Amazon; even surpassing “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” The book is continuation of the worldwide beloved “To Kill a Mockingbird,” also written by Lee.
The new novel takes place about 20 years following the events of the English-class favorite, in which a now adult Scout, “is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood,” as summarized by the book’s publisher.
“Watchman” was actually written in 1957, long before Lee’s famous bestseller. But it was rejected by Lee’s editor, with the proposition to write a new piece, this time focusing upon the “flashbacks” to Scout’s childhood that she frequently experiences throughout the novel. Thus, the universally known “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published three years later.
But this begs the question; why is “Watchman” being released now? More than 55 years have passed since “Mockingbird” was published. Harper Lee is now 89 and has frequently stated that she detested that attention that she received from her first book.
The controversy of “Go Set a Watchman” is one of both speculation and fact. Many believe that Lee was manipulated due to her age, seeing that “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence,” as claimed Alice, Lee’s sister and caregiver. Also under suspicion is the death of Lee’s lawyer, who kept the manuscript locked away for so many decades, and whose passing resulted in the work’s re-discovery.
The claims of manipulation, while compelling, are difficult to concretely define without proof. Regardless, the general consensus regarding “Watchman’s” road to the bookshelves seems under question by many.
Moreover, the issue of publishing without consent isn’t all that makes the Watchman situation problematic. Beyond legalities, the novel’s shear text and plot has not been well received.
The fact that this piece is essentially a rough draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is obvious in the writing of the book. “Watchman” contains brief stretches in which the words sound much like the Harper Lee we all know and love; quirky, vivid, and the slightest bit of humor (my personal favorite of these being a flashback in which a teenage Scout, clearly lacking a course in SexEd, feels convinced that kissing a boy on the cheek has caused her to become pregnant). But these moments of clarity are often shrouded in flawed dialogue that feels unfinished and klunky.
Readers may face even more disappointment when they discover that the novel’s first chapter glosses over both the death of widely loved Jem Finch, and the story of Dill, who abandoned the Maycomb County scene to travel in early adulthood. Further surprise comes when an elderly Calpurnia is introduced, and she resembles almost nothing of her prior self. Additionally, the odd, and yet comforting tale of Boo Radley has been eliminated entirely.
Then, of course, there’s the elephant in the room. Or should we say, the newly imagined, racist, Atticus Finch.
The shock of Atticus’s contrasting characterization in “Watchman” left much of the literary community in a whirlwind. The Mr. Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was considered a hero; the fantastic father-figure who battled the entire judicial system and sought equality for all individuals. However, the now elderly Atticus is only seen fighting for the rights of white citizens, from his comfortable seat in the ranks of Maycomb’s KKK.
It’s true. Atticus is a klansman.
And yes, maybe you can argue that these characters are complex, and that the near-flawless Atticus from “To Kill a Mockingbird” was merely a facade, or a misinterpretation by the young, immature Scout.
But it was difficult to anticipate how the world, specifically English classes, would come to romanticize the Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Since it was deemed required school curriculum, generations of high schoolers who read the novel now view this man from an utterly idealistic perspective. Education has hyped his importance, analogizing him with a knight or a Southern-superhero.
And now, that reputation we’ve been building for this fictional character over decades is finally collapsing, and it’s crumbling down upon all of us.
It’s like releasing a new book that paints Katniss Everdeen as a lover of President Snow, or Hannibal Lector as a vegetarian.
For those who teach “To Kill a Mockingbird” every year, who have become intimate with these characters, and perhaps have even come to trust them, I can only imagine that this feeling resembles being punched in the gut by a close friend.
The case regarding “Go Set a Watchman” resembles a perfect situation of “ignorance is bliss.” Would it have been wiser to withhold the secrets in this novel, if it meant maintaining the prestige of “To Kill a Mockingbird?”
Or do we need this information, no matter how cruel, because it allows us to view the piece from a new and more educated perspective?