Editor’s note: With the July 14 release of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman,” I decided to re-read what had been her only other novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” This column is the second in a two-part series exploring each. Be warned: spoilers ahead.
Oh, Harper Lee. You almost had the perfect literary career. You released one universally adored modern classic in 1960, dropped the mic and lived the next half a century a reclusive legend.
Then, in 2011, your lawyer, Tonja Brooks Carter, “found” an earlier draft.
“The version I was told was that the book was in either a safe deposit box or a bank vault, and it was wrapped in a manuscript of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and nobody noticed it for all these years,” Hugh Van Dusen, your editor at HarperCollins, told Vulture’s David Marchese Feb. 3. “[Lee] said … that her editor at the time at Lippincott, the original publisher … said to her ‘this isn’t what you want to write; you want to write something about Scout when she was a girl.’ So, [Lee] went back and wrote a new book.”
While your millions of fans would love to read more of your work, many of us found the timing more than a bit suspect.
“Concerns [emerged] that Lee, who is 89 and reportedly suffered a stroke several years ago, was being taken advantage of by her lawyer,” reported The Birmingham News’ Connor Sheets Aug. 18. “Lee had for years maintained that she would never publish another novel and ... the announcement came just months after the November death of Lee’s sister and longtime protector, Alice Lee. … In February, the Alabama Department of Human Resources received at least one anonymous tip suggesting that Lee had been subjected to elder abuse. The agency met that month with the author at Meadows of Monroeville … and concluded that she was mentally competent to handle her affairs. Joseph Borg, commissioner of the Alabama Securities Commission, [said] the state agency he runs never took the further step of investigating her financial situation because ASC had no grounds to launch an inquiry into Lee’s finances after DHR determined that she was competent.”
Still, “Go Set a Watchman” was destined to be a bestseller. But, our hearts sank once we got our hands on it. Set two decades after “Mockingbird,” your previous nonesuch, Atticus Finch, is now a white supremacist former Klan member spouting state’s rights with a local “citizen’s council” who decries the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and the NAACP. Some have taken this news harder than others.
“Colorado parents [David and Christen Epstein] chose to name their 14-month-old son Atticus after the long-revered literary hero,” reported People Magazine’s Tierney McAfee July 24. “But after reading [‘Watchman’] they had a change of heart — and a change of name. … After much deliberating, the parents decided last weekend on the name Lucas, or Luke for short.”
To those disturbed by your newly revealed version of Atticus: Don’t throw him on the scrap heap just yet. Remember, this is an earlier draft; a neighboring, but alternate reality. (As evidence I would point to the differences between the two in the recounting of the Tom Robinson trial. In “Mockingbird,” the supposed rape victim is 19 and he was found guilty. In “Watchman,” she was 14 and he was found innocent.)
And I didn’t find “Watchman” to be a bad book, either; far from it. It was fascinating to me to see the previous incarnations of your signature characters. For example, Jem is revealed to have died like his mother, young and of a heart condition. I was also interested in how World War II loomed so large over both books. In “Mockingbird,” rumblings of war are just reaching the characters. “Watchman” exists in the aftermath. The message of “Mockingbird” has the moral confidence of Winston Churchill. “Watchman” lives in the dull compromise of Neville Chamberlain. (Scout even invokes the latter’s infamous “peace with honor” early in the text.)
Anyway, I sincerely hope you actually wanted this new book published.