Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Release Date: 14th July 2015.
‘Go Set a Watchman’ by Harper Lee ~ Musings on the ‘Watchman’ Release by an Author & Bookseller.
Today is the publication date for Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’, and having been involved in some of the pre-release hype in my role as a bookseller, I have a lot of thoughts that I felt compelled to share.
‘Go Set a Watchman’ was actually Harper Lee’s first novel. Set twenty years after the events of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Lee’s ‘Watchman’ manuscript was her first foray into the world of the Atticus and Scout that readers know and love today. ‘Watchman’ wasn’t published. Instead her editor expressed an interest in Scout’s story as a child which had been hinted at throughout the ‘Watchman’ story. And so, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, one of the most popular modern classics was born.
‘Mockingbird’ was Lee’s only published book until today. Keen to live a solitary and private life, she rarely, if ever gave interviews about her writing or life. She also put ‘Watchman’ away, never to see light of day again.
The media has had a field day as the ‘Watchman’ release approached. Expectant readers have been both excited and horrified at the idea of a second ‘Mockingbird’ novel, riled up by the early reviews posted.
And so begins the criticism.
‘Why on earth would Atticus be a raging racist?’ some people have questioned, ‘It makes no sense.’
‘Hasn’t the time of Mockingbird passed? This is just another ploy she’s had to make money.’
And, my favourite, said to me by a bestselling children’s author who shall remain unnamed.
‘Well, it wouldn’t have been published if she really didn’t want it to be. If it’s terrible she’ll only have herself to blame.’
Can you see what is wrong with this, already?
First off, let’s look at the story.
As previously mentioned, ‘Watchman’ is set twenty years after ‘Mockingbird’. Twenty years. A lot can happen in that time. If Atticus has turned into a ‘raging racist’, then rather than expressing disbelief at it, why not read the story and look at what has happened to Atticus in the intervening time between the novels that may have affected Atticus’ feelings on racial equality?
Again mentioned before ‘Watchman’ was written before ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. These were the characters that Lee first knew. As an author I can attest to the fact that characters are constantly changing. If a book has taken more than a year to write and has a number of drafts, looking at the first draft compared to the last, will show just how much the characters have changed based on the story that they have been telling. So in ‘Watchman’ Atticus isn’t the fair-minded man we knew and loved in ‘Mockingbird’, but maybe that’s because after writing ‘Watchman’ and then reverting back to Scout’s childhood, had in fact made Lee change her mind about how she wished Atticus to be portrayed. Maybe she felt that she felt more connected to the characters that she had written in ‘Mockingbird’ than she had in ‘Watchman.’
Now lets look at today.
Harper Lee is 89 years old, and lives in an assisted care home after suffering from a stroke, and from reports of friends and associates; may suffer from dementia. Was she truly in her right mind when she agreed for ‘Watchman’ to be published after having hidden it away for years? Yes, some may say, of course she was, otherwise it wouldn’t have been published.
If only it were that simple, but I’m afraid that it probably isn’t.
What I hope to have expressed in this post, is that potential readers of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ read the book with an open mind. Don’t flame Harper Lee for publishing a book that she may not have wanted to see published. Don’t criticise the characters and the story in ‘Watchman’ when it is likely not to have been re-drafted or edited by Lee herself after the publication of ‘Mockingbird’.
And finally, please don’t let this book or how you may feel about it impact on your feelings for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as the wonderful and inspirational modern classic that it is. Let them be separate books, with separate circumstances, and enjoy them each for what they are.