In case you’ve been squirreled under a rock that shelters you from turbulent events in the literary world, on Tuesday, HarperCollins released a “rediscovered” book by Harper Lee, author of the beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird.
Back in February, when the company announced its plans to publish the book, called Go Set a Watchman, intense debate — and formal investigations — broke out immediately.
Skeptics wondered: Why only now would the novel surface after so many years? And why did this new work surface so suddenly after the November 2014 death of Alice, Harper’s sister and lawyer, who was known to be her sister’s protector and who reportedly had said that Harper (or Nelle, as she is called and which is her legal name) had severe problems with her memory?
Even the state of Alabama, where Lee lives and where both novels are set, had doubts. The Department of Human Resources and the Alabama Securities Commission launched an investigation to discover if the now-89-year-old author, who had a stroke in 2007 and is reportedly almost completely blind and profoundly deaf, actually understood that the novel was being published.
Was this really a fortuitous discovery of a lost work by Lee? Or was this a case of people taking advantage of an elderly woman, hoping to cash in on her reputation by selling the only other novel she’d ever penned, even if it wasn’t any good?
More background: Go Set a Watchman was written before Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird. The main character is Scout, who, of course, is also the protagonist of Mockingbird, but in this work she is a grown-up 26.
Some said Watchman had been rejected initially by publishers back in the 1950s, but some said it didn’t happen quite like that: Andrew Nurnberg, Lee’s foreign-rights agent, said in an article in The Guardian in March that after reading the manuscript for Watchman, Lee’s original publisher “persuaded her to write Scout’s story through the eyes of a child, and the plan was to write a short novel to act as a bridge to Go Set a Watchman.” That short novel, if it ever existed, has never been seen.
The New York Times, also this past March, summed up the Watchman controversy: “Did Ms. Lee — 88, publicity-shy and famously resistant to producing a follow-up to her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird — really want to publish a second novel that she wrote and set aside more than a half-century ago?”
The world may never know, and for a while it seemed like fans didn’t really care about the back story. They just wanted the book. As soon as its publication was announced, Watchman leaped to the top 10 bestseller list on Amazon, where it remained until its publication.
So what about the book? In the end, all the controversy, publisher hype and fan hope don’t amount to a hill of Alabama beans if the book isn’t any good.
Go Set a Watchman is not a horrible book, but it’s not a very good one, either. Here’s the premise: Jean Louise (called Scout as a child) returns from her new home in New York City to Maycomb, Ala., for her annual summer vacation. The South is embroiled in civil rights racial tension, and Maycomb is no exception.
Jean Louise has lots on her mind. Her father, Atticus Finch, is 72 and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Her beau, Hank, who works with Atticus at his law firm and is one of her oldest friends, wants her to marry and settle down in Maycomb. And then she discovers that Atticus — who famously defended a black man in a rape case when Jean Louise was just a girl — is now part of a citizens council that appears to have an anti-civil rights agenda.
The problems with this book are multifold. The plot is overly simplistic. The narration is often flat and in the last few chapters devolves into long, dull dialogues. The characters, other than Jean Louise, are not deeply formed. At the time the book was written, Jean Louise’s sassy attitude and independent spirit might have been striking, but her character now comes across as simply dated.
There’s not a whole lot of tension leading to the narrative climax, and the resolution is less than satisfying. Overall, it’s easily forgettable.
There are certainly some strengths to the novel, too: The story breezes along and Jean Louise’s sass can be quite funny. A scene where her aunt throws a little party for her is quite entertaining.
The book has a strong sense of place, and the controversy over race gives an interesting historical perspective — especially interesting in light of current racial tensions in this country.
Unfortunately, this book also has a Pulitzer-sized deck stacked against it. What reader could help but compare it to To Kill a Mockingbird? If Mockingbird is like one of the best vintage wines of all time, then Watchman is a shot of cheap whiskey, much like the one Jean Louise drinks at the end of Watchman.
Inevitably, people will be disappointed in this version of Atticus, just as they will be sad that Jem and Dill are not in the book and Calpurnia is also much changed. There’s no Boo Radley, and the famous trial in Mockingbird is just a few paragraphs of memory in this book.
What’s truly remarkable about this novel is that someone — most likely someone at the publishing house where Lee pitched Watchman, but who really knows, maybe it actually was Truman Capote, a childhood friend of Lee’s who has been rumored to be the true author of Mockingbird — saw the germ of a great story in this novel, and helped Lee in some way to dig deep and bring the remarkable work that is Mockingbird to light.
Watching the national nightly news the day before the book was released, I heard a soundbite from a man who said something about how Watchman would “probably change the way I see Atticus.” I thought this was both wrong-headed and brilliant. Atticus, of course, never was a real person. The author invented both Watchman Atticus and Mockingbird Atticus to serve different purposes in two very different books.
But on the other hand, the fact that a reader saw a literary character as “real” — almost like someone he knows — is what great fiction is all about. Mockingbird created this wonderful human called Atticus, real to this man and millions and millions like him, including me.
At the end of the day, for those of us who love Mockingbird so much that a piece of our heart is in its pages on our bookshelf, it may be best to just skip this “new” book and stick with the classic.
This is where we’ll truly rediscover the characters we adore beyond reason and where Scout, Jem, Boo and Atticus will always and forever be waiting for us, just, as Lee wrote at Mockingbird’s end, as Atticus waited all night until “Jem waked up in the morning.”
Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
Audiobook: HarperAudio, $34.99; narrated by actress Reese Witherspoon.