Was Harper Lee ahead of her time?

Go Set a Watchman cover

As most of the world knows by now, Go Set a Watchman was an early draft of what went on to become To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee turned Watchman in to her publisher in 1957, and her editor encouraged her to write a very different story.

Lee’s initial draft was about a young women (based on Lee herself) living in New York City who visits her Alabama hometown and clashes with the racist views of her father, Atticus Finch, and her boyfriend, Henry, in the aftermath of the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which declared unconstitutional state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students.

This story morphed into the iconic novel we all know and love, set in the 1930s when Harper Lee was a child and Atticus defended a falsely accused black man.

In my last post, I wrote about how Lee’s publisher has marketed Go Set a Watchman as a newly discovered novel, a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. This has confused, upset, and disappointed devoted Harper Lee fans. Some people believe Lee has dementia and would not have wanted this second book published. Harper Lee has stated in the past that she’d said all she wanted to say with To Kill a Mockingbird and that she would not publish again.

Nonetheless, we now have Go Set a Watchman, and before I ever opened the book I decided to read it to the end because I was curious. As many have pointed out, usually a first draft of this nature is of interest only to literature scholars and writers seeking to learn from another writer’s process. Now the rest of us have the opportunity to read a young novelist’s first attempt and make of it what we will.

Some things have surprised me. First, while many readers have been disappointed (as a novel it doesn’t work for me, but I didn’t expect it to), other readers are enjoying Go Set a Watchman, happy to experience more work by a beloved author. For some, Watchman is simply a good story; for others, it’s fascinating to read an author’s first crack at writing a novel; and still others see this new vision of an imperfect Atticus living in an imperfect time as especially relevant, given the racial tumult playing out in America. They find Watchman’s Atticus a more authentic, believable character than the idealized hero portrayed in Mockingbird.

Much as I dislike the publisher’s tactics, I do think Go Set a Watchman is a valuable contribution to our conversation about race. In the end, I don’t think Harper Lee’s reputation will be damaged. Nothing can take away from the power of To Kill a Mockingbird. And those who are interested in the genesis of truly great literature can see, by comparing the two books, how far and difficult a road a writer must sometimes travel to craft a story that speaks to readers. It’s been said that at one point in writing To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee threw the manuscript out of her apartment window in despair.

There is something that I wonder about, though. Harper Lee initially tried to tell the story of a young person striking out on her own who can’t abide the attitudes and beliefs of those she loves in her hometown.  Isn’t this what many of us have experienced? At the time, Harper Lee’s editor may have persuaded her that American readers weren’t ready to grapple with the provocative views held by Atticus and Henry as Harper portrayed them. I think it is a shame that Harper Lee never had the opportunity to take her initial idea and give voice to that story as well, in a more fully formed and crafted novel than the current Watchman.

So much of Atticus, the fictionalized character, was based on Harper Lee’s true father. It takes a lot of courage to portray someone you love in a less than attractive light, and it takes a lot of skill. Contemporary writers of memoir and autobiographical novels do it all the time, but only a few succeed in doing it well. I’m sure Harper Lee had it in her to bring her original story to life, if she’d had the right editor and artistic support (clearly not those currently at the editorial helm of HarperCollins), but I’m not sure Harper Lee herself knew she had it in her.

Many have wondered why Harper Lee never published again. After the initial overwhelm of To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication, Harper Lee granted no interviews. Though she shared with friends a list of the additional books she wanted to write, she apparently never wrote them. She said herself that she couldn’t face the intense publicity again, and that she wouldn’t be able to top To Kill a Mockingbird, that the only place for her to go was down.

Who’s to say how Harper Lee really felt, but it may have been very frustrating for her if she was blocked in her writing after Mockingbird. Perhaps having her original story of a family portrayed in a less than flattering light rejected by her editor, and then being encouraged to craft a more idealized, palatable one, alienated Harper Lee from her own truth.

Writers of memoir and autobiographical novels often struggle with a sense of shame as they write the truth as they see it. Often they are criticized for being self-serving or narcissistic or for violating privacy. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club are two memoirs that come to mind which required brutal honesty and tremendous courage to write. Nowadays, there are coaches, instructors, and editors skilled at helping memoir writers, especially, write their own truth; this wasn’t so much the case when Harper Lee was writing.

In Go Set a Watchman I see the seeds of an equally valuable story that may have been ahead of its time.

Have you read Go Set a Watchman? What do you think? Should it have been published? Has it changed your views of Harper Lee? How do Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird compare, or are they incomparable?

Go Set a Watchman: What do publishers and book bloggers owe their readers?

Go Set a Watchman cover

“To those whose bubble was burst about Atticus, well, Santa Claus was really our parents, Bill Cosby wasn’t really Bill Cosby, and Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner. Let’s get over it and get real about racism. How can we fix it otherwise?” Wally Lamb

“It’s being sent to us as a gift. It’s a blueprint to decode, something that we need to be better than we are.” Nikky Finney

I don’t have insider information about the controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman. I know only what I’ve learned from the articles and opinion pieces I’ve read since the book came out a few weeks ago.

I’ve chosen to trust Harper Lee’s biographer, Marja Mills, who doubts that Lee would have wanted Go Set a Watchman published if she were fully functioning. Harper Lee had a stroke a few years ago and currently resides in a nursing home, where a guard posted at the door maintains a list of people who are allowed to visit her. Some have questioned whether Harper Lee is capable of making informed publishing decisions, especially since she maintained for decades that no further books by her were forthcoming.

Go Set a Watchman was the initial draft of what would be transformed into To Kill a Mockingbird. It was problematic because it was a draft written by a novice writer learning her craft, though Harper Lee’s editor saw the talent and potential behind it. What’s more, the Atticus Finch portrayed in this first draft was not the iconic hero America went on to embrace. He was an Atticus Finch that perhaps American readers were not ready for. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, mentored and guided Harper as she crafted quite a different story, the one that became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Fast forward many decades. After Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, died (Alice was a lawyer who looked after Harper’s estate and protected her interests), Harper’s new estate lawyer and the publisher HarperCollins spearheaded the publication of the initial manuscript, the one Harper Lee had originally called Go Set a Watchman.  

The manuscript was lightly copy edited, but no substantive editing was done. Any revisions, of course, would have required consultations with Harper Lee and perhaps some rewriting on her part, which many believe she cannot do since she is nearly deaf and blind and may be otherwise incapacitated.

HarperCollins has marketed the book as another, newly found novel by Harper Lee.

I’ll save my opinions about the literary quality and content of Watchman for my next post. Here, I want to say how disappointed I am in HarperCollins and the current big business model of book publishing. The publication of Go Set a Watchman has been called a money grab on the part of a publisher capitalizing on Harper Lee’s name and reputation. I agree with that assessment.

Back in the day, I started my career as a book editor in educational publishing, and I’ve been told by a friend who has remained in the business that I wouldn’t be happy if I’d stayed. Books must rake in the profits. Literary and other books with less popular appeal are often not supported or even published in the first place, regardless of their artistic merit. Fortunately, independent publishers, university presses, and self-published authors are filling the gap to some extent; many are committed to producing literary works of art regardless of their profit potential.

I believe, too, that the publication of this unedited first draft shows a profound disrespect for Harper Lee and puts her at risk of an undeserved tarnished reputation.

What if the unedited first drafts of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway or Margaret Atwood were published and marketed as new novels? Might our opinions of them as writers change?

Writers, sculptors, painters and other artists have a right to their first drafts, their initial conceptions, their trial and error efforts, and they have the right to keep this work to themselves or at least have it viewed in context.

I’ve been disappointed by a couple of bloggers and social media bibliophiles I’ve read, who seem to have no knowledge of the controversy and circumstances behind the publication of Go Set a Watchman, and little understanding of or interest in book editing, authorship, and responsible publishing. They are providing no context for their readers.

In one case, a book lover on Instagram with many followers heaped nothing but vitriol on Harper Lee. He claimed that she “knows nothing” about race – a serious misreading of her – and seemed to not take into account that Go Set a Watchman is a dated first draft written by a young writer in the 1950s. Many of this Instagram-er’s readers thanked him for steering them away from the book and seemed to take his indictment of Harper Lee at face value.

I unfollowed him.

Sometimes I’m ambivalent about being a book blogger, though most of the time I believe blogging is valuable. I was educated as a journalist, I was a book editor for a highly regarded book publisher that produced quality work, and I was paid for the editing and writing I did, with the expectation that I’d maintain the highest standards.

As bloggers, we can write whatever we want, with no one to fact check or edit our work. That’s the beauty of it – no gatekeepers, the opportunity to express ourselves, explore our passions, and share them with others. But there is a down side, too.

All of this said, I believe the publication of Go Set a Watchman will turn out to be a good thing, as you can likely tell from the opening quotes I’ve chosen. More about that in my next post.

Please share your thoughts about Go Set a Watchman. Should it have been published? And if you’ve read it, what do you think? If you find this post valuable, please share it so more readers can join in the discussion!

Here is a video of Ursula Le Guin talking about books as commodities. I’ve posted this before:

Read Go Set a Watchman with me

Go Set a Watchman coverBarnes & Noble in Rochester opens at 7 am tomorrow for the release of the story Harper Lee originally tried to tell. I expect, wherever you live, your local bookstore will have plenty of copies of Go Set a Watchman on hand.

Maybe we weren’t ready for the book in 1960.

Lee’s editor set aside Go Set a Watchman and worked with Harper for 2 years as she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, the book we grew up with.

I’ll be talking about Go Set a Watchman here and on my FB fan page.  I would love for you to join in the discussion. But be prepared to be shocked by a very different Atticus Finch. If you like your memories about To Kill a Mockingbird just the way they are, then this book probably isn’t for you.

Please share this post with your friends so we can get a good discussion going on Books Can Save a Life.  I’ll be kicking off comments at the end of July, so go buy or borrow your copy of Go Set a Watchman now and get reading!

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