Did you hear that Atticus Finch is an unapologetic racist in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the
sequel early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird?
The novel has been marketed as a sequel to Lee’s Mockingbird — an agent of Lee’s even suggested that Watchman was meant to be the final installment of a trilogy — but, as the La Times says in its guarded review of Lee’s latest publication, “It would be a mistake to read Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as a sequel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” (Just as I thought).
The stories surrounding the origin and discovery of Watchman have never made any sense. HarperCollins and Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, have claimed that Carter herself was the one who discovered the draft in the fall of 2014, even going so far as to quote then-88-year-old Lee as saying, “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.” (See this ridiculous press release).
That quote is particularly interesting in light of evidence suggesting that the Watchman manuscript may have been found several years earlier, when a rare books expert assessed a manuscript that had been in a Lord & Taylor box presented to him by Carter and Lee’s then-agent Samuel Pinkus (whom I’ve written about on this blog before, though the recent mysteries surrounding Lee have moderated my view of him; maybe he really was following Lee’s wishes—rather than Carter’s?).
Carter acknowledges having been at the meeting with this rare books expert and Pinkus, but, according to The New York Times, “She said that she was sent from the room to run an errand before any review of the materials occurred. She denied ever learning that a different manuscript had been found that day and would not elaborate on whether she had later asked what had happened.”
As Jaclyn of Covered in Flour, a fellow lawyer, tweeted yesterday:
If the Watchman manuscript was found in 2011, why didn’t Lee consent to its publication then?
Is Lee really aware that Carter has published Watchman now?
There has been a long debate about Lee’s competence due to her failing health. I’ve discussed the sad circumstances surrounding Lee’s odd public exposure several times on this blog, from her lawsuit against Pinkus to her actions against her hometown museum.
Last March, I updated my post questioning Carter’s role in the Watchman publication — Can We Trust Harper Lee’s New Watchman (Can She)? — to say that the state of Alabama had investigated Lee’s competence and made the determination based on an interview with Ms. Lee that she was aware that her book was being published.
I accepted that determination because, well, it’s a supposedly neutral third party’s finding (not that Alabama doesn’t have something to gain from Lee’s popularity) and any additional investigation of Lee would be intrusive.
Still, I know that people diagnosed with dementia — and I have no idea what Lee’s diagnoses are — can appear lucid from time to time and that a great deal depends on what the questions were, how they were asked, and who was present during the interview.
Whether or not Lee actually consented to the publication, though, is now moot. The book will be published on Tuesday, July 14th.
The earliest reviews are out, and they aren’t pretty (see this recap from The Daily Mail). Maybe the commentary on the writing style, plot, and characters wouldn’t have been so negative had Carter and HarperCollins been honest that Watchman is not a separate book but merely an early draft that only those with an interest in the evolution of To Kill a Mockingbird would find worthwhile.
If Watchman is Lee’s original version of what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m left asking the same question Michiko Kakutani raised in the New York Times review:
“How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father?”
To what extent is Mockingbird the product of New York City rather than Monroeville, Alabama?
I’ve always known that Mockingbird was a heavily revised manuscript, but I’ve never known how much of Lee and her hometown remained in the final result. Now, I don’t want to find out.
I love To Kill a Mockingbird, the man who defended Tom Robinson, and my understanding of the person and the place that created them. To keep that fiction intact, I’m going to pass on Go Set a Watchman.
My final question is this: Did Carter and HarperCollins publish and market Watchman to make a quick buck at the expense of Harper Lee’s legacy?