When I first heard they were releasing a second novel by Harper Lee I was excited. Like really really excited.
Something else from the author of The Great American Novel? YES PLEASE. HERE IS MY MONEY.
I clicked on the first link I saw that referenced it, and learned that the circumstances of the release were sketchy at best.
Alice Lee dies and 3 months later a 60 year old book that Harper never wanted to publish before is “discovered”? Maybe I’m too cynical.
— shrall cromsy (@theshrillest) February 3, 2015
Harper Lee has described herself as more Boo Radley than Scout, and her lawyer sister Alice had shielded her from being dragged into the light, from “all the ladies in Maycomb… bringing angel food cakes.”
By all accounts she had never intended Go Set a Watchman to be published.
She inadvertently signed away the copyright to To Kill a Mockingbird in 2011, then sued to reacquire on the grounds that she was unable to see or read the documents clearly, and too deaf to speak on the phone.
But years later, we are to believe she was capable of consenting to this publication?
I don’t know, and that’s why I decided I wasn’t going to preorder the book.
Until yesterday, in an 11th hour decision. I made the order minutes before the cutoff and paid $3.99 for next day shipping so I’d have it in my hot little hands on release day.
Go Set a Watchman isn’t a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, as we all thought when the original news hit; it’s an original draft, lightly edited. Mockingbird takes an incident out of the original and thanks to what sounds like an intense relationship with her editor, Lee fleshed that out to a fully realized coming of age story and American masterpiece about racism and redemption.
Thanks to the New York Times, we know that Watchman reveals a new Atticus: segregationist, eugenicist, extremist, and that the novel is more about Scout’s disillusionment with her one-time idealized father. That makes for a “no thanks” from a lot of people, who don’t want to see their Atticus sullied.
And that’s when I decided I needed to read Go Set a Watchman, for the following reasons:
1. Unlike the Salinger situation— Salinger was always 100% rock solid on not publishing the rest of his works, as much as that pains me— at one time Harper Lee absolutely meant the novel for publication. She submitted it to a publication house. You don’t do that with your diary or private papers. She may have decided later she didn’t want it published because it wasn’t her best work, and I can understand that. But as a writer who is fascinated with the process, I am most excited about the opportunity to see the bones of what went down in Maycomb and conjecturing about how she got from here to there. I plan to read it gently, knowing it was never given the scrutiny and polish that Mockingbird benefited from.
2. I’m intrigued by the change of heart in Atticus, and I think it’s both true to the time and place and applicable to our current times. It’s important to acknowledge that people with racist views don’t just belong to closeminded hyperbolists in a box labeled “racists.” They are our friends, our neighbors, our family members, and some of them grew up idealists and dreamers. Being a bigot doesn’t mean you’ve never done a laudable thing in your life.
Everyone is a product of the time and place they were raised in, and the more we seek to understand the lens they view the world through, the closer we can come to breaking down barriers. Even if it means accepting that Atticus himself could grow to become disillusioned, bitter, hateful.
3. I think a close reading of Atticus’s full timeline will better inform our reading of Atticus in Mockingbird. Once you start looking for them, there are passages that hit me differently as an adult reading critically than as a kid reading for class. We carry the image of Gregory Peck in our minds, but on paper Atticus said some conflicting things.
Way back about nineteen-twenty there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anyone to scare.
Whut? The KKK couldn’t find anybody to scare? It’s a political organization? WTH is that all about, Atticus?
In any case, Go Set a Watchman is the most preordered book on Amazon since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows— a book that was anxiously awaited by young and old. I’ve seen a lot of people say that they reread Mockingbird in preparation, or like me plan to revisit Maycomb after finishing Watchman, or decided against tarnishing their image of Atticus and just elected to read Mockingbird again.
That’s great. That’s awesome. Everyone should read To Kill a Mockingbird, for the first time or again as an adult. It’s such a wonderful piece of literature and a fantastic starting point for discussing systemic racism and how far we have— or haven’t— come.
Because what I’m hoping for is a shit ton of discussion, without a media story and the emotion that goes along with it fueling flames. I hope that we can use this fictional place and these fictional characters as a cultural touchstone we all share, and move from there to talk about real life hard things without getting all personal about it.
Is that what Harper Lee wanted? I’m not sure. I think so, though.
Still waiting for the UPS man? These are some thought provoking posts until the book arrives.
“Public encouragement, I hoped for a little … but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening,” Lee said at the time. She stopped granting interviews and would sometimes skip town for a few days when she learned that a reporter was trying to track her down. For years she insisted she’d never publish again.
There appeared to be a natural give and take between author and editor. “When she disagreed with a suggestion, we talked it out, sometimes for hours,” Ms. Hohoff wrote. “And sometimes she came around to my way of thinking, sometimes I to hers, sometimes the discussion would open up an entirely new line of country.”
The Courthouse Ring: Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism.
Finch will stand up to racists. He’ll use his moral authority to shame them into silence. He will leave the judge standing on the sidewalk while he shakes hands with Negroes. What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama.
The messages are so clear and so simple. It’s about a way of life, getting along, and learning tolerance. This is not a black-and-white 1930s issue, this is a global issue. Racism and bigotry haven’t gone anywhere. Ignorance hasn’t gone anywhere.
If you’d like to purchase Go Set a Watchman, you can order from Amazon at this link and I’ll get a couple of cents for sending you.
Are you reading?
Tell me what you think.