Go Set A Watchman: Sequel or Prequel?


Go Set A Watchman Book Cover



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.

To Kill A Mockingbird Book Cover


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 Telegraph

New Republic

The New York Times (Jonathan Mahler)

The New York Times (Serge F. Kovaleski and

The Wall Street Journal

The Washington Post

The Washington Free Beacon