My feelings about the publication of Harper Lee’s “lost” first novel have been, to put it mildly, very mixed. When I first learned of the book’s existence, my initial reaction was pure joy. What could be more exciting than stumbling upon a previously unpublished book written by an iconic writer?
Then, on the heels of the big announcement of this book, came the great hue and cry. Harper Lee had become, in the intervening years between her great success and the news about the “finding” of Go Set a Watchman, a woman no longer in control of her faculties. The famous writer, once so feisty and full of fire, was now reportedly deaf and senile, her ability to aquiesce to the publication of her first book dubious, at best. It was then I began hearing the whole story, started digging into accounts of the great battle between the author’s late sister and former attorney/protector and the woman who’d taken up that mantle since Alice Lee’s death: Harper Lee’s new attorney, Tonya Carter. For once the author’s sister was no longer in the way, Carter was now in control of Lee’s estate. It’s a short fall from being given the reins to taking power.
Whether this means the whole affair has been a greedy grasp for the money guaranteed by the publication of Watchman or, by her new lawyer’s assertion, Harper Lee’s own fully-realized wish to publish this book is not clear. We can only speculate and, of course, that’s a dangerous and slippery path.
“As Alice’s health declined — she died last year at 103 — Ms. Carter assumed more responsibility for the firm and for Harper Lee.
It was in her role as Ms. Lee’s lawyer that Ms. Carter said she came upon the “Watchman” manuscript while rummaging through Ms. Lee’s bank safe deposit box last August. There is a conflicting account that the manuscript might have been found years earlier by an appraiser for Sotheby’s. Ms. Carter has disputed that version of events.”
- from “Another Drama in Harper Lee’s Hometown” by Serge F. Kovaleski and Alexandra Alter, The New York Times
From my initial excitement in first hearing of the book, my opinion quickly swung to indignation at what could well be the manipulation of an eldery woman – who also happens to be an iconic and revered author – by an opportunistic lawyer, for never let it be said the profession isn’t easy enough to smear. It’s not difficult believing the worst, not in this case.
The taint put on the endeavor is what kept me from reading the book this long, why I didn’t dive into it immediately upon publication. Why I pulled it off the bookshelf now I don’t know. I was looking for something to read and there it was. My hand went to it, I opened it up, and many pages later realized I was immersed – it is that gripping. It didn’t even occur to me, on starting the reading of it, that it was nearly Martin Luther King’s birthday. I’d come to recognize this only once I found out the company I now work at, one based in Birmingham, Alabama, gives its employees the day off for the holiday, something unusual here in Chicago. Otherwise, it would likely have passed me by completely, the connection between the civil rights leader’s life, the themes of this book and my timing missed.
In brief, the background explaining the book’s failure to be published in the first place asserts Harper Lee’s publisher rejected it, instead asking that she come at the story from a different angle. The resulting second novel was, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird. The rest is literary history.
As it turns out, Go Set a Watchman is a gob-smacker of a book, a total shock for what it contains. Having read and re-read To Kill a Mockingbird several times over, Lee’s first novel comes as a revelation. Atticus Finch is an iconic character. Go Set a Watchman turns everything about him on its head. The man we thought we knew so well, so it turns out, is far more complex than we ever knew. And it doesn’t all sit so easily.
It’s not all pretty, her original intent. Harper Lee didn’t set out to paint the picture of such a pure spirit as the world came to know, a man of single-minded motivation, all directed toward the idea of pure racial equality damn the ramifications. It’s my assertion, having finished it, her original book may have been rejected on the basis of its brutal honesty, its refusal to sugar-coat or create a figure like the one we’ve come to know as Atticus Finch. She re-wrote the book, giving into the pressure, but did she do herself a disservice in the process?
Honestly, I’m a bit afraid to answer and I’m not even sure I can. Go Set a Watchman is the story of a grown woman who, having left the podunk Alabama town she’d grown up in, returns on one of her annual visits, inevitably finding a much smaller place than she’d left. Jean Louse “Scout” Finch relates all the usual internal struggles, pitting big city life against a past at once quaint and hiding a disturbing quality she hadn’t seen as a child. Now grown, her maturity allows for a clearer vision in some ways, but as it turns out not all her newfound perceptions are so clear-cut. Her father may not be the hero she thought but is he the villain she now believes him to be?
““But a man who has lived by truth—and you have believed in what he has lived—he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing. I think that is why I’m nearly out of my mind.”
- Go Set a Watchman
Go Set a Watchman is a more mature book than To Kill a Mockingbird, a truth fitting considering it’s written later in the life of its main character, Scout Finch. It also serves as a fitting companion to the book, though one that’s no less jarring for what it does to the reputation of Atticus. But what perhaps surprised, even delighted me more is the continuity Lee maintained from the young Scout to the 26-year old, returning woman. It’s as if she did initially hope it would eventually see publication, for she did keep the character true to herself, making a point of keeping the story line as it was to begin with, carrying over into Mockingbird. This doesn’t read as much like a replacement book as a prequel. It reads like a book she hadn’t given up on.
So, did Harper Lee understand when her attorney told her it was, at last, hitting the presses? Was Tonya Carter telling the truth, or has Lee’s now legendary, adamant refusal to write another book – ignoring the fact she actually had – been her true stance all these years? It seems unlikely we’ll ever know, now. Cloaked in the darkness of growing dementia, Harper Lee doesn’t appear capable of saying.
“I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird’… I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”
- Harper Lee
For better or worse, Go Set a Watchman is a fine novel. Imperfect but, partially due to its provenance, a fine story and worthy successor to To Kill a Mockingbird. I certainly never believed I’d say that – it shocks me more than you know – but I have to speak the truth as I see it. This is a revelatory tale, if a bit rough-edged and less well-crafted than Mockingbird. Lee would certainly have cleaned it up a bit more, had it been slated for publication originally, possibly taking out a few self-consciously written passages, breaks in point of view I cringed to read. She may not be pleased to know it was published as it is, warts and all. But would she be pleased on general principle?
Harper Lee remains an enigma. Her reputation is set, her legacy secure, what she wanted now moot. My only hope is she wouldn’t have been distressed knowing her first book is her final legacy, because that would be a true shame. Not that anything can take away her significance or what she’s given the world. Nothing can ever do that. To Kill a Mockingbird is one for the ages, her great gift. At the least, she will die knowing that.
“We wondered, sometimes, when your conscience and his would part, company, and over what.” Dr. Finch smiled. “Well, we know now. I’m just thankful I was around when the ructions started. Atticus couldn’t talk to you the way I’m talking—” “Why not, sir?” “You wouldn’t have listened to him. You couldn’t have listened. Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise. They must never descend to human level.”
- Go Set a Watchman