Go Set A Watchman is Harper Lee’s first draft of a novel (See links at the end of the post). In 1957, Lee’s agent submitted it to Tay Hohoff, an editor at the now defunct publishing house J. B. Lippincott. Hohoff did not see it adequate to be published; however, she did see promising elements in it, “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line,” she later recounted.
The draft’s protagonist, 26 year-old Jean Louise Finch, Scout, now a New Yorker, goes back to visit her childhood home in fictional Maycomb County, Alabama, and finds discrepancies about her father Atticus now from the man she thought she had known all the years growing up. To her alarm and disillusionment, Atticus, while a good father and a good man to all the rest in Maycomb, holds racist views and is firmly a segregationist.
Hohoff advised Lee to rewrite the draft but this time, instead of writing Jean Louise Finch as an adult, focus on her reminiscence of her childhood growing up in Maycomb with her brother Jem, living under the roof of her father Atticus, and summer days spent with a boy next door called Dill. After more than two years of editing and rewriting, To Kill A Mockingbird was born. And the rest is history.
So here’s the query I have: If your novel, after two years of editing and re-inventing, had developed into a final form and published in 1960, some 50 plus years ago, had gained high acclaims, won the Pulitzer, become a beloved American classic, been adapted into an Oscar winning movie, and achieved international recognition, why would you want your very first draft as a novice be published to the world now?
At 89 years old, Harper Lee now lives in a nursing home, a stroke survivor who has lost most of her hearing and eyesight, and just months after her sister Alice Lee – guardian of her privacy and legal advisor – had passed, and suddenly a ‘newly discovered’ Harper Lee novel appeared.
In a recent New York Times Op Ed article entitled “The Harper Lee ‘Go Set A Watchman’ Fraud”, columnist Joe Nocera vehemently argues that the Rupert Murdoch-owned HarperCollins had “manufactured a phoney literary event.” The publishing house had sold more than 1.1 million copies of the book in a week, the ‘fastest-selling book in company history’ according to the publisher, to which Nocera decries “Go Set A Watchman constitutes one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.”
The above is the major challenge surrounding this phenomenal ‘literary event’. So how should one read the book? Controversy aside, what can we reap from reading Go Set A Watchman?
Definitely not as a sequel and not a prequel either, but take it as it is: A first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird.
Only when comparing the two books as a ‘Before and After’ transformation can we see how the writing process had taken place. By reading Watchman as a first draft, we come to appreciate how a seasoned editor had helped a novice and an aspiring writer to achieve her goal to become a respectable, published author. And this we know Hohoff had done most successfully.
Reading Go Set A Watchman
First off, to all readers, a major reminder: Harper Lee is a real person, and Atticus Finch is a fictional character. In Lee’s first draft, Go Set A Watchman, Atticus is a good father, but a racist. Yes, he had successfully defended Tom Robinson and gained him an acquittal, that was a court appointed case. This is anecdotally mentioned in Watchman. But Atticus is a self-professed Jeffersonian Democrat, one who subscribes to Jefferson’s view that: “A man couldn’t vote simply because he was a man… He had to be a responsible man.”
Lee spends a climatic chapter towards the end describing the arguments between father and daughter on the issue of race. While both are polar extremes, and I don’t want to quote the words from Atticus pouring forth his arguments about how “white is white and black’s black”, I must point out that it is Scout who loses her cool during the debate. She is the one who blows right out, foul-mouthed and accusing her father with hurtful, derogatory terms. Throughout the verbal confrontation, Atticus remains a gentleman. “I’m seventy-two years old, but I’m still open to suggestions.”
And I’m quite impressed by the next episode, and that’s when Scout cools down and goes back to her father, seeking reconciliation. It’s not just a simple case of ‘agree to disagree’, but somewhat laying out a more complex relationship with the ambivalent stance of ‘I can’t beat you, I can’t join you,’ but love can still triumph over all. That is the spark of an inspiring writer I can see in the conclusion of Lee’s Watchman. As Scout apologizes for her foul-mouthed diatribe aimed at her father the day before, this line from Atticus will remain with me: “I can take anything anybody calls me as long as it’s not true.”
Hohoff might just have seen this character trait in Atticus that she advised Lee to expand on in her rewrite. I see this admirable element as I read. Let the fictional character Atticus be created as an ideal type of a man, open to others’ opinions, upholding his ground with firmness but with no malicious hostility. And yes, we can all appreciate this change of heart in Lee’s rewriting in Mockingbird. Let Atticus be the ideal father and friend, a deserving, honourable man.
Further, in Watchman, the racist turn in Atticus has not been well accounted for. Since Jean Louise has come back to Maycomb annually to see her father, why the sudden discovery of his racist stance? And why had she not known about his views considering her close relationship with her father all her growing years and only in recent years in her adult life had she moved to NYC. But most important point of all Lee had not explained in Watchman, why had Atticus changed his view? These could be flaws in the plot line that Hohoff had Lee re-think.
As recounted, Lee based her Atticus character on her own father, the lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee who had actually defended two black men but failed to have them acquitted. According to reports, the elder Lee had been a segregationist but later changed his views to support integration. The real life parallel is obvious. The details we could only speculate, was it the man that had influenced the change in the book, or maybe vice versa?
In the rewriting process, there is the elimination of two significant characters in Watchman, Hank, Jean Louise’s suitor, and Uncle Jack, holder of family secrets. Once a clear storyline is established, with the equally moving minor plot of Boo Radley, a parallel Mockingbird theme with Tom Robinson as both being vulnerable victims, Hank and Uncle Jack would not be needed to uphold the story lines. So, no matter how much a writer had invested in a character, cuts and alterations could be the outcome, quite like the deleted scenes we see on DVDs, the rational choices we have to make in the long creative process. On the other hand, a character that exists only in memory, Jem, who had died in Watchman, is revived to his lively self, and we are all grateful for that revision.
One of the main reasons Hohoff had rejected the first draft was that it was episodic, lacking a unified story arc as a novel. Readers of Watchman will find this so, especially when Jean Louise switches back and forth from the present to the past. As I read, the past holds much more attractions as Scout describes her growing up days in Maycomb. We see the children in a different perspective, something like a ‘behind the scene’, a ‘making-of’ featurette. Thanks to Hohoff, such episodes are restrung into the gem of a book called To Kill A Mockingbird. Indeed, Hohoff had grasped the social psyche well, there was a need for a noble, heroic character in her time then, and maybe even more so in our time now.
LA Times (With video)
The New York Times (Jonathan Mahler)
The New York Times (Serge F. Kovaleski and
19 thoughts on “Go Set A Watchman: Sequel or Prequel?”
All of this is interesting, and it becomes even more so when we remember the episode where Lee threw her manuscript of “To Kill A Mockingbird” out the window of her New York apartment, into the snow. Then, she called Hohoff, who told her to get out there and pick the danged thing up. It’s one of the more unique examples of the difference a good editor can make!
Personally, I’m not going to read “Go Set a Watchman.” I’m heartily sick of our society’s apparent desire to tear down those who accomplish something grand, or even good, for all that, and I’ve felt from the beginning there was some of that involved with all this hype. Since I’m not obligated to study or review “Watchman,” I’ll just let it go, and have another re-read of one of my favorite books. 🙂
Well, I’m not so sure the motive here in this case is to tear down the author’s or her character’s image but one of monetary gains despite possible damages and tarnishing of, again, both the name of the author or her character, however fictional. If Go Set A Watchman ever succeeds as a stand-alone work, I feel sorry for all those who have named their sons Atticus. You know, I was so influenced by To Kill A Mockingbird, and the film adaptation, and yes, Gregory Peck did it for me, I had given this book (the 50th Anniversary edition) to my son after his college graduation and upon entering Law School. Atticus Finch IS our role model. So kudos should go to Hohoff for all her inspiration and editorial work.
I just found this article. I think it’s reasonable, and to the point. “Go Get An Editor”
Added this to my list of links at the end of the post. Thanks.
I have bought a copy of Go Set A Watchman but in all honesty, I’m still not sure if I’m going to read it!
(Mostly) Yummy Mummy,
Welcome to the pond where you throw in your two pebbles and make some ripples. Yes, I heard you. Well, since you’ve bought a copy, it can sit on your shelf until you’re ready. As I’ve suggested in my post, let emotions subside and try to see why the first draft wasn’t adequate for publishing, and how a veteran editor had helped create a modern classic. Hope to hear from you again. 😉
This is an excellent approach both to a problematic book (in the sense it is not at all what people are expecting or wanting) and to the issues it raises. It’s extremely sensible – and enlightening – to see Watchman as a piece of literary history, and an extended commentary on the editor’s art. Funnily enough I am just writing something on the relationship between lying and storytelling which made me think of Atticus Finch; how a powerfully created character can seem more real than an ordinary human being, and how upsetting it is to discover (just as upsetting as when we catch anyone out in a lie) that he is just a piece of imagination, able to be twisted about as his creator chose.
Thanks for your comment. Yes, that’s the only way I can see how one can read the book, with much credits to the editor Hohoff. In my mind, Atticus still remains as Atticus, the Gregory Peck portrayed perfect man. No Watchman can tarnish my mental image of him. 😉 After all, that was a discarded, first attempt of a novice writer.
And the other side of the coin is fiction written as memoir, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces readily comes to mind. I didn’t read that book but noticed all the commotions it had stirred up when it was discovered that he’d made up stuff in his memoir and passed them as actual happenings.
You have an excellent topic there, for even if the author is perfectly authentic in her storytelling, with a perfectly good heart and mind to distinguish between facts and imaginary, how much can one trust one’s memory to be exactly correct, or what we reminisce or conjure up as facts are not fused with our imagination, or maybe wishful thinking, not that the author tells a lie on purpose. I look forward to your article.
I pre-ordered a copy and read it the day it came. I realized it was a first draft of TKAM and I hated it because it read like one. And I’m with you, Atticus will always be Atticus. Thank you for this very reasoned and well-thought out review. I have to believe that the publisher knew full well that this was not a book fit for publication but could not resist the cha-ching of the cash register. They did Harper Lee, an old and vulnerable woman, a great disservice.
Thanks for stopping by the pond and throwing in your 2 pebbles. It’s very unfortunate that this first draft is publicized now and even more so when it’s touted as a ‘newly discovered novel’. However, to respect Lee’s first attempt at the writer’s craft and to pay tribute to the guiding hand behind the success of her eventual, final draft, the editor Hohoff, I thinking my suggestion of reading it to learn from the writing process will be helpful to readers, especially those with writing aspirations. Yes, to use reason to replace anger… A very ‘Atticus’ way of handling a disappointing situation. ‘Our’ Atticus will always remain unchanged. 😉
This is an extremely thoughtful, insightful and well conceived and written post, addressing a lot of issues that have been plaguing me about the book. At this point I am inclined to give it a pass. Maybe that will change when the hype wears off or if someone passes it along to me, but for now there’s enough I’d like to read that I needn’t add it to the pile. To me, “Mockingbird” is a gem and I’m not sure I want that gem (or Jem!) tarnished and other thoughts mixing up with my own feelings about Atticus, truly one of the most remarkable characters ever written (or portrayed on screen). And yes, viewing it as a draft helps. Viewing it from an editorial point of view and looking at the changes is a wonderful exercise in analysis. I suspect much of the phrasing is lovely — you don’t go from trash to treasure if the treasure isn’t somewhere to be found. But for now, I think I’ll pause. Maybe re-read Mockingbird again… it has been a long time.
Thanks for your comment. Atticus has influenced me in several ways and seeing things with reason is one. His child rearing stance is good too. As I mentioned in my reply to Linda, the 50th edition of TGAM was my gift to my son as he entered law school. Hopefully he can carry on with the Atticus spirit in the days ahead, both in career and in his future parenting. 😉 And I totally understand and am with you, if one is short of time (who isn’t nowadays, even during our summer holidays), just skip it. We all have our long TBR list which is growing by the day.
Loved this Arti! I think you have gone at the book just right. It is a first draft and should be read as such. I do think its publication a money-grabby scheme which makes me sad. I don’t blame Lee, it’s all on the publisher. But I can see how for writers and readers interested in the evolution of a story, it could be an really good study.
I read online that some who bought the book had asked for a refund. And a bookstore in MI had done that for its customers, extending apologies. I just feel it’s so unfortunate that at such a late stage in Harper Lee’s life an earlier part of herself, private, green and a novice, her first attempt at publishing, should be thus misused. Even if treated as a historical doc as a first draft of a famous novel, it should be packaged differently with analysis and annotated, best with Hohoff’s recommendations and editorial comments. But not like a brand new novel as it is now.
I am in complete agreement with you on that.
This is just fascinating – I’ve been torn on GSAT ever since I’ve learned of its existence. My first impression was that its publication was an attention-grabbing/money-making scheme which would serve no use to anyone. Now, after reading this, I realize how much of the grace and beauty of TKAM would be lacking – I’m not talking about plot and character, but the mere writing of the thing.
It’s not for me.
I’m sure the writing and editing process is fascinating, albeit long and hard. I’m sure too that’s why there are many more readers than writers. 🙂 Having said that, I think all the more publishers, especially the more powerful, established ones should be more discrete in their decision making. The bottom line should not be the only criterion for every action.
I am so glad I read your article a while back, as I was able to explain to my daughter what Go Set a Watchman was all about, and its context. I listened to a little of it on the radio, but it felt more like a curio than a convincing novel, and I lost interest before finishing.
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