Pre-Reading: My Two-Cents On the Controversy of Go Set a Watchman

51fGhOk4bLL._AC_SY440_On Tuesday evening, while I was making an amazing pot of beef stew (that is neither here nor there, just a shameless plug for my fabulous stew) I heard the distinct sound of the UPS truck’s breaks. It’s a different sound from a neighbor’s car or my husband’s truck—more hiss than squeak. I looked out the window, and saw the man in brown toting a small package. I just knew if was my copy of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. I was so excited that I met the man on the sidewalk so I could handle the coveted book as soon as possible. All my bibliophile friends had been talking about this book for the past three weeks:

Are you going to get it?
Did you pre-order the book?
I think we should read it for our book club.

In my excitement, I had a hard time ripping off the thick brown cardboard surrounding it, so I used my teeth to free the book. (Yes, all you moms out there, I know teeth are not tools—except sometimes they are). I looked at the cover, the dark teal color, the shadowed trees in the background, and the yellow color of the font. I felt the smooth texture of the book jacket, turned to see how many pages it was (278 pages), and then I put it on my kitchen counter.

Two days later it is still there. Why?

I ask myself the same question, and I think it has to do with all of the hype and the controversies surrounded the publication. So, I have put the book on hold because I do not know how to make sense of these emotions. For those of you who need a quick update about the controversies, here they are:

1. Go Set the Watchman was the original book Harper Lee submitted to her publishers and editor in the late 1950s. Her editor Tay Hohoff liked the voice of the young Scout in the flashback portions and encouraged Lee to rewrite the story from Scout’s point of view growing up in the 1930s Deep South. The result was a completely new book called To Kill a Mockingbird. So, Watchman and Mockingbird are two different books, with different settings. Watchman is not a sequel to Mockingbird, even though it seems like it is. In Watchman, Atticus Finch is a man in his 70s living in the Civil Rights era, and who is seemingly a bigot, very different from the mild-mannered attorney who defended Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Early readers have found this disappointing, almost as if the Atticus in Mockingbird was misrepresented.

2. Over half a century since Mockingbird was published, her attorney Tonja Carter and some other people found the Watchman manuscript in a safe deposit box. There is controversy as to when it was found. Some say it was 4 years ago, and some say it was last November.

3. The third controversy is about whether or not Lee really gave her consent to have it published and if so, did she have the mental health needed to do that.

You, lucky blog readers, get to be privy to my disentanglement of emotions.

First, I don’t care how the manuscript was found. Was it found last November as Tonja Carter attests, or four years ago when a team of people, including Carter, was looking for memorabilia from Harper Lee to insure and possibly auction off? For some reason this part of the story has been controversial. I don’t care about that except the various stories tell me that Ms. Lee was surrounded by some duplicitous people, who at their very best are liars and who at their very worse are people trying to dupe a disabled Pulitzer Prize winning novelist in her waning years.

There are some things I do care about. Did Harper Lee really give permission to have this book published? Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and in a sense it was rejected. Her editor said that there was little plot to the story. Why would Harper Lee want to publish the original book she submitted 50 or so years ago when it was not accepted then for multiple reasons including a weak plot? There is no indication Lee continued working on the novel. Did Harper Lee really want an early draft of her work made public? Likewise, Lee has always contended that she had one novel in her. She had no intention of publishing another one. Why at 88 when someone accidentally discovered Watchman, would she change her mind?

There have been conflicting reports about Harper Lee’s mental faculties. Some have said she has short-term memory problems, and that after a stroke her hearing and sight were severely impaired. Even her sister admitted to several people that Harper Lee had problems with her short-term memory. Of course, there are hosts of people who swear to her lucidity. However, it is only through her attorney that Lee said she was excited Watchman would be published. No one has really heard from Lee herself. Lee’s older sister was her avid protector, and, isn’t ironic that three months after her sister died, the manuscript miraculously appeared? Could editors, publishers, and lawyers have taken advantage of Lee’s mental state so that they could publish this book, thus making millions off her? Hum.

The second disappointment for me involves the controversy of the beloved Mockingbird hero, Atticus Finch, father of Scout who comes of age in this book. Some readers are all disgusted by how bigoted the older white Atticus is in the new book.

I believe one of the reasons Mockingbird was an instant success and continues to be a favorite in middle and high school English classes is because Atticus’ lessons on equality and love. He impresses on his children to walk in another’s shoes to understand people’s choices and their suffering. His very quiet anti-Jim Crow lessons are particularly powerful. Atticus’ lessons aren’t political or radical. That’s not the type of books it was. Remember this book is set in the 1930s when white supremacy, white power, a white man’s word over a black man’s word is not questioned. It is the status quo. Atticus defending a black man, even though he was appointed to do so, was controversial because he actually did his best to defend Robinson. A book set in the 1960s is vastly different. It was a turbulent time in history, when blacks were saying “no more” to segregation, their lack of rights, and their persecution. A novel written during the 60s about the 60s is a different book all together. And, maybe this turbulence is one reason her editor encouraged Lee to change the setting, the narration, and the plot.

I find it odd that readers would be disappointed in this second Atticus. In my mind, they are really two different characters: one written from an older daughter’s perspective, a character who had the passion of a Civil Rights movement supporter; the second Atticus written from the perspective of a young child (6 at the beginning of the novel), and what it was like living in a segregated South before a national call for equality.

Now that I have untangled my reticence, I am going to read the book. Will I be pleasantly surprised? Will I find the writing in need of revision and editing? Will I, too, question Atticus Finch? Stay tuned for my book report.

2 thoughts on “Pre-Reading: My Two-Cents On the Controversy of Go Set a Watchman

  1. Teri

    Hi Cara,
    I found the same problem with Gone With The Wind. The “sequel” Tara was supposedly found also many years after Margaret Mitchell passed. In that instance, I thought that GWTW should stand alone. The supposed sequel seemed to have totally different characters with the same names. Scarlett went on to marry again (and again? I really cannot remember the book that well, as it was so disappointing), and somehow managed to have been pregnant by Rhett when he left, and went on to have his secret child. He remarried, and so on and so on.
    I was young when I first watched To Kill a Mockingbird. I was entranced by Scout and how cool she was and how free and unencumbered her childhood seemed. Her dad was amazing with the kids. It was always said he was much older than their mother, and that when she died he was heartbroken but raised the children with good morals and lessons in life. I had a severe childhood crush on Gregory Peck (guess I always had a thing for older men!). His portrayal of the quiet yet deeply moral Atticus was impeccable. I could not understand how the jury found Tom guilty. How could they not see what was in front of their eyes? It took a while for me to understand the portrayal of racism.
    It saddens me to know that Harper Lee was so taken advantage of. I understand her keeping the manuscript, as it was her child. She took from the Watchman the best of the story. How Atticus could become racist is beyond me. It is too bad that we can never know what Ms. Lee’s intent for the story was. If, indeed, she had any intent other than to make the story more marketable or more understandable. I look forward to hearing your reactions, and I hope I can buy the book aftermarket, as I’m sure Ms. Lee is not seeing any of the profits.
    My grandfather surprised me a long time ago when he was relating stories of his work history. I knew that he was a good man. I knew that he was not perfect. I know that he was a product of his time. I know he was a man, a good man. The things I learned about my Grandpa and the things I learned of the man were diverse, but they meshed into the man he was. Somehow I see Atticus as that. But the beloved Atticus to become as racist as the promotions have made him out to be? I hope that if it does make him out to be that much different, that To Set a Watchman (I don’t understand the title) will perhaps be a stand-alone story, not to be confused with the story and lessons of To Kill a Mockingbird.

    Liked by 1 person

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