On “Killing Our Heroes”: Atticus Finch & Harper Lee

Harper Lees Lumpy Tale

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:

Jaclyn TweetYeah, Carter’s statement about running an errand has the “ring of bullshit,” and it calls into question everything she’s said thus far.

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?

38 thoughts on “On “Killing Our Heroes”: Atticus Finch & Harper Lee

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  6. This piece is quite illuminating AMB…as a writer, I have referenced Atticus Finch a lot, even in one of my scripts. Now, I’m confused if I should edit it or just keep it in honour of the Atticus we all know and love.

  7. Alexandrina Brant

    Interesting. As I don’t have much knowledge of literary law and stuff, I hadn’t realised there was so much controversy surrounding Watchman.
    I read Mockingbird when I was thirteen or so in school and it was one of those books that caused an impact on me with the issues or race and prejudiced opinion – so, in a way, with similar reasons to yours I’m actually thinking of reading Watchman. I’d like to see the differences, even if I don’t end up liking the book itself. On the other hand, I hate the implication that Lee is being taken advantage of. Hmm, it’s a tricky situation for a reader.

  8. Pingback: To Kill Atticus Finch by Harper Lee | Heart, Depth and Soul

  9. For Lee to decide to publish this novel now is so completely out of character as to be ridiculous. It seems obvious to me that she is being seriously taken advantage of and I won’t be reading anything new that comes out. I just feel sad for her, because for someone to mess with her legacy in this way is so wrong and there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do about it.

    1. Thank you, Vickie! It suggests that To Kill a Mockingbird would never have existed if the publishing industry then was anything like it is now (which just rejects anything that requires revision!).

  10. I had no plans to read Watchman, because I don’t want to kill my heroes (though in my head I didn’t put it as eloquently). I wish Watchman were as great as Mockingbird, but I had little hopes right from the first news of a “new” manuscript. I knew that Watchman started as early draft for Mockingbird, which made me even more reluctant to read it. And now, after reading the NYT review, I know for sure that I will skip the Watchman. I want to remember and re-read Mockingbird as the perfect book it is for me, rather than have that memory muddled by people I don’t trust.

    1. “I want to remember and re-read Mockingbird as the perfect book it is for me, rather than have that memory muddled by people I don’t trust.”

      Well said. I feel the same way. I’m hoping Watchman will end up being an interesting footnote to the history of To Kill a Mockingbird (and nothing more).

  11. Reblogged this on The Misfortune Of Knowing and commented:

    Tonja Carter, the lawyer currently serving as Harper Lee’s new “watchman,” is still at it. Now, she says that Lee may have written a third novel (a rumor that’s been around since the Watchman announcement, as I mention in my “Killing Our Heroes” post).

    Everyone purporting to represent Lee’s interests makes it sound like they’re managing a literary estate. However, Harper Lee is still alive.

    So, now I’m wondering: If Harper Lee is competent enough to publish Watchman, why can’t she just tell us how many novels she wrote?

  12. This is such a strange situation. I feel like many readers adore TKaM so much that they are willing to read anything written by Lee, regardless of the circumstances.

    My sister has pre-ordered the book, so I will be waiting to see what she and other bloggers I trust think about it before I make a decision.

    1. I completely agree with you. I feel like Tonja Carter has done her best to ruin Harper Lee’s legacy. Hopefully, when the dust settles, Watchman will just be an interesting footnote to To Kill a Mockingbird.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  13. I can totally see the option to pass on GSaW…. I’m just too dang curious. I’m going to approach it as a totally separate entity, and promptly forget it if it’s terrible.

    1. Alexandrina Brant

      This is my approach, too. I’d like to see the fuss, even if I agree that GSaW wasn’t worth reading. 🙂

      1. It’s certainly hard to resist reading Watchman–It’s kind of like rubbernecking–but I’m going to do my best to ignore the book! I’m hoping it will turn out to be just an interesting footnote to the book it actually became, Mockingbird. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the book.

  14. Wow … wow … be interesting to see how this all shakes out. I’m kind of with you … not sure I want to muddy my deep and abiding love of Mockingbird. Thanks for your post … fascinating stuff!! Tweeting.

    1. “[N]ot sure I want to muddy my deep and abiding love of Mockingbird.”

      Exactly! I love To Kill a Mockingbird too much to ruin it by reading Watchman.

  15. I agree with you and Theo. There is something suspicious that in 2011, Lee’s beloved and trusted sister was still alive and knew Lee was opposed to publishing the book. After the sister died and Carter takes over, the manuscript is suspiciously discovered . Watching this story develop has sent chills down my spine. I write popular, as opposed to literary, fiction, but I intend to have a literary estate managed by an author I respect who would not publish what I didn’t want to have published.

    1. It’s such a sad situation. It’s hard to believe Harper Lee would want to publish Watchman after all of this time. The fact that Carter has never been able to get her story straight suggests something very fishy is going on.

  16. I can’t help it, I’ve gotta take a peek (at Go Set A Watchman) … not saying I’ll finish, but do want to confirm it’s what I think it is … excellent post, as always. Sharing to my FB writing page.

    1. I’m curious about Watchman, but I just can’t bring myself to read it. From what I’ve seen of the reviews, I’m sure it would ruin my view of Atticus. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book, though.

  17. 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.

    Just a short while I read a series of remarks over on the Twitter saying that in fact Atticus Finch was even a racist in To Kill a Mockingbird. I won’t try to summarize the explanation (sparing you the details, perhaps like you’re sparing yourself by passing on the “new” book). The desire to kill our heroes is, in any case, no purely modern folly, to be sure. Our species has been doing it since time immemorial. It seems that doing it the way it is being done to Atticus Finch is just one of our more modern ways of engaging in the folly. Add to that all the sordid details you’ve written about in this and previous essays, and something that should be far more beautiful is being treated in such an ugly fashion. Did I mention that we also like to make beautiful things ugly? Been doing it since time immemorial, you know.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I have heard various arguments about Atticus Finch being racist or, if not overtly racist, a person who upheld the status quo. Many people who aren’t overtly racist are implicitly racist to some extent. Even still, the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird is not the Atticus Finch of Watchman, and I don’t know why Carter and HarperCollins would want to ruin his image by making it seem like this is a sequel to the only novel we can be sure was published with Harper Lee’s permission.

  18. I was just thinking about this yesterday and wondering when the book was coming out. I have no plans to read it. I don’t think it should have been published, and I also suspect something hinky went on here to put it out. 😦

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