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'Go Set A Watchman' Sets Records, But Should It Have Been Published At All?

In this Aug. 20, 2007, photo, “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor, at the state Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. (Rob Carr/AP)
In this Aug. 20, 2007, photo, “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee smiles during a ceremony honoring the four new members of the Alabama Academy of Honor, at the state Capitol in Montgomery, Ala. (Rob Carr/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

To publish or not to publish, that is the question.

When an author is no longer with us or mentally incapable of expressing his/her wishes, deciding what to do with unpublished work can be challenging. The risk breaks both ways: demur and a possible classic remains mothballed; or, proceed and a subpar work sees the light of day.
Sometimes things work out for the best. Imagine if Franz Kafka’s friend and biographer Max Brod followed orders and burned all his works, most then unpublished including “The Trial,” after the author was gone. Then again, the lousy books unwisely published after their authors’ deaths include works by Hemingway, Kerouac and, well, just about any author deemed enough of a brand name to rack up sales in the afterlife. Meanwhile, news arrived this week that a "new" Dr. Seuss book is on its way, the manuscript found in a box of work the late Theodor Geisel had left unfinished.
Too often, it seems the decision to publish is made not with quality in mind, but with quantity — i.e. sales figures.

This book cover released by Harper shows "Go Set A Watchman," a follow-up to Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird." (Harper/AP)
This book cover released by Harper shows "Go Set A Watchman," a follow-up to Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird." (Harper/AP)

That would seem to be the case with Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” There’s been much debate over the book’s virtues, or lack thereof, and even whether Lee was onboard with the publication or even in a proper state to approve it.

Despite the fact that “Go Set a Watchman” has set records in its first week of release, with a million copies already sold and more than 1,000 Amazon reviewers giving it an average four-star rating, it should never have been published. Its predictable popularity only underlines the cynicism behind its publication.

The new book seems in most ways to be a sequel to Lee’s only other novel, her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but is actually an earlier draft of that book. “Watchman” returns readers to familiar territory. Perhaps “familiar” isn’t the right word. The characters and milieu may be recognizable from “Mockingbird,” however, things have changed in the two decades that have elapsed between the events of that classic novel and those of “Watchman.”

That being said, the book is not without its charms, and readers hungry to revisit the people and places they know and love from “Mockingbird” will find plenty to indulge their nostalgia. Lee also runs through “Watchman” several themes — from the wages of progress, to the universal desire to go home again, to the pluses and minuses of community life.

Likely obliterating all this is the shock readers will feel upon learning that Atticus Finch, the compassionate and moralistic lawyer of the earlier book, is now, in “Watchman,” a segregationist full of racist rhetoric that he ultimately tries to soft peddle in his best legalese.

“They want to wreck us,” Atticus says of the local blacks, whom he believes to be naturally inferior to whites and now worrisomely empowered with the recent passage of Brown v. Board of Education and some pot-stirring by the NAACP. These words are spoken to his daughter, Scout, now 26 and known by her given name, Jean Louise. Once again, she serves as Lee’s narrator, and it is she who acts as the novel’s moral compass, not her father.

“Watchman” updates readers regarding many of their favorite characters including Jem, who died two years before the start of the new novel; Calpurnia, who was driven by grief back to her own family; and Dill, who moved to Italy. As for Jean Louise herself, she’s turned into a New York City sophisticate wannabe, but one unable to shake off the Alabama dust of her past. The novel begins with her annual trip home, where she anticipates another enjoyable family visit with the added possibility of a marriage proposal from her father’s protégé, Henry Clinton, himself an up-and-coming lawyer.

In “Watchman,” Scout the tomboy from two decades earlier has grown into a force of nature; what else would we expect from Scout? When she notices her father, Atticus, reading a racist pamphlet and subsequently sees him and Henry at a community meeting listening to the reactionary ravings of a local racist, her world is turned upside down. Atticus is no longer a beacon of righteousness, but just another scared and ignorant yahoo looking to keep the black man under his thumb. How she deals with this provides the main action of “Watchman.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was a great book in many ways. From the outset, Lee knew how to work dramatic tension to great effect, and the novel had at its heart an intriguing mystery in Boo Radley (unmentioned in “Watchman”).

Most of all, “Mockingbird” was what I call a small-town novel, and Lee has few equals in this genre. She brilliantly and effortlessly fills her pages with the people, sights, sounds and mores of the American South circa the 1930s. In “Watchman,” that gift shows no traces of having waned, and Lee’s canvas full of local color and homey wisdom offers the novel’s greatest pleasures. Its depictions of Maycomb County, in real time and flashback, will remind readers of its predecessor’s greatness.

Dragging down the new novel are its painfully didactic late chapters and the fact that Henry and Atticus are merely straw men set up for Jean Louise to pummel with her moralistic logic. That the best Atticus can do in defense of his segregationist beliefs is quote Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, is a sure sign that he’s been purposely set upon shaky ground.

Meanwhile, the new book is dotted with flashbacks, and though some readers will enjoy these trips down memory lane, the point is not always clear, and they clutter up the narrative.

In “Mockingbird,” readers got all the above-mentioned virtues and none of the drawbacks. "Watchman’s" status as a first draft published as a wholly new work is, as far as I know, unprecedented in American letters. There’s a reason for this. Drafts are merely stepping-stones to completed works, and, as The New York Times has indicated in a recent story, Lee and her editor Tay Hohoff did much to hone the author’s original vision and story into the masterpiece that is “Mockingbird.” The new book should have simply remained in manuscript form and placed in Lee’s archives for scholars and students to learn from.

“Go Set a Watchman” is a shadow of Lee’s great novel, and foisting it upon a public hungry for more of Lee’s sparkling prose, warm wit and narrative gifts, appears to be an act more mercenary than literary.

John Winters is working on a biography of the writer-actor Sam Shepard (Counterpoint Press).

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