Go Set a Watchman: I’ll Pass.
I haven’t read Harper Lee’s new/old novel, Go Set a Watchman. I will not be reading it.
I don’t think you have to have read it, however, to be troubled by not only the reported content of the novel, but the alleged nature of its discovery and ultimate publication. Just about everything regarding this manuscript that actually predates Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird bothers me.
To begin with, much of the media, as they so often do, is sensationalizing aspects of this release story, and in the process, many facts have been lost in the shuffle for what publishers are calling the biggest preorder and midnight purchase extravaganza since the final Harry Potter book.
Actually, I’m not sure facts are being lost so much as ignored or pasted over with the more interesting headline. Otherwise respectable news sources repeatedly refer to Watchman as “the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.” It isn’t, and one need only observe the facts about the manuscript, available even before the publication, to understand this.
Yes, Watchman is set about twenty years after Mockingbird. This alone, however, does not make it a sequel, and the book’s own cover does not in fact identify it as such. Harper Lee has called it a “parent” to Mockingbird, whatever that might mean.
So it is not a sequel. A second volume, perhaps, under normal circumstances, though these are far from normal circumstances. Yet it’s far sexier to say that one of the most beloved stand-alone novels in American history now has a sequel. Even sexier still when the author has for decades been a fame-shunning recluse who repeatedly stated she had no further plans to publish anything ever again. We’ll get to more of that in a minute. Back to the concept of sequels.
A sequel, according to Mirriam-Webster as well as to general understanding, “continues a story began in another book, movie, etc.” Much has been made over the fact that Watchman was actually written first. This is in fact quite important, but not in regards to its supposed status as a sequel. The completion date alone does not disqualify it from being a sequel. Authors write things out of narrative sequence all the time. Content determines a story’s status as a sequel. As per the free first chapter released last week, and the information about the plot made public in advanced reviews of Watchman, we know that many events in Mockingbird are only mentioned in passing in Watchman, or are not mentioned at all. Those stories could hardly be said to have “continued” in this so-called sequel.
Worse than that however, crucial aspects of Mockingbird have been erased. Or to be more correct, aspects of Watchman were drastically altered in Mockingbird, namely the Robinson rape trial, wherein Atticus Finch is the counselor for the accused, a black man. In the much beloved Mockingbird of course, the innocent Robinson is found guilty by the white jury; this is a key sequence in the novel.
In Watchman, it appears only the briefest of references is made to this pivotal rape trial, as characters look back on it. Only, surprise, the black man in that rape trial is acquitted. I somehow doubt we are intended to believe Atticus Finch defended not one, but two black defendants wrongfully accused of rape in the same time period, going on to lose one trial and win the other.
While it is true that the Robinson trial is not the exclusive focal point of Mockingbird, one could hardly argue that such a discrepancy between Watchman’s recollection of the event, and one of the most iconic moments in one of our most iconic novels has no bearing whatsoever on how one should approach Watchman. In short, change the Robinson trial, and you have changed the very reality of 1930’s Maycomb, Alabama.
Watchman, therefore, not only takes place 20 years after Mockingbird, but it also takes place in an alternate Maycomb, with a significantly different town history. “Scout” and “Atticus” may be there, but they have arrived in Watchman by way of a very different history than “Scout and Atticus” from Mockingbird would have experienced. (I promise, this is not a Back to the Future review.)
It’s no secret that Watchman was a draft that Lee’s editor requested she revise drastically. (So we are told, anyway.) She did, and we got Mockingbird. This bears constant repeating, as I don’t think the general public latches on enough to this important fact; Watchman is an earlier, different draft of Mockingbird.
I don’t expect the whole world to understand every nuance of a writer’s process. In fact, every writer has a different process. But as a writer myself, I can promise you that every writer, sometimes just in their head but usually on paper or on screen, has a draft or two or nine of their work. Some change their drafts little, and some change them a great deal, but they get changed. Even when an author believes a work to be complete, an editor in the traditional publishing model often requests changes to improve the book and/or to make it more marketable. The fact that Harper Lee originally completed and presented Watchman to a publisher decades ago is in no way proof that it was meant for public consumption today or that anything we find within can be accepted as Mockingbird canon. In fact, as I have already said, it cannot.
When viewed in this light, and not as the “long awaited sequel to one of the greatest novels in American history,” much of what has been made of Watchman’s contents dwindles in significance.
For example, Atticus Finch being a racist in Watchman. So much weeping and gnashing of teeth about that. The great hero of so many who fought for justice and equality and due process for a black man in the South, reduced to someone who attended KKK meetings, and supports segregation. The horror! The heartbreak!
Yet as I said, that is all a literary red herring, given that one should not interpret Watchman as a true “sequel” to Mockingbird. It was a novel that a publisher did not think would work, except for the flashbacks. So Lee wrote an entire flashback novel instead, not as some odd prequel to the already rejected Watchman. Stuff changes during rewrites, folks. It sure did for my novel. Things obviously changed quite a bit between Watchman and Mockingbird.
If a racist Atticus and other such discrepancies are red herrings, so are the ever so helpful and condescending explanations from apologists for said discrepancies that have inundated the conversation.
“People have dark sides. People change. This is how a white middle class lawyer in the South would have really been. Don’t confuse Atticus Finch with Gregory Peck, now. Liberals hijacked Finch for their own purposes long ago.”
Yes, people have dark sides. Yes, people change. Timelines however, do not, outside of science-fiction. This isn’t Doctor Who, though. Atticus either got Robinson acquitted, or he didn’t. In Mockingbird he did not. In Watchman, it seems that he did. Both cannot be true at the same time, ergo the tone, characters and plot of Watchman should not be evaluated in the light of Mockingbird.
In any event, flawed though he may have been, Atticus Finch in Mockingbird became iconic to so many people over the decades because he doesn’t behave in a typical way for a white Southerner in the 1930’s. Such a “typical” man would have probably beaten the shit out of Boo Radley and told him to get a job, but the Mockingbird Atticus doesn’t do that. Neither, as far as I know, does the Atticus in Watchman. Yet we are to believe that the Atticus we all know and love changes in such a drastic, repugnant manner because of Brown vs. Board of Education?
And no, I am not confusing Atticus Finch with Gregory Peck. The concepts of movie adaptations and actor portrayals are not at all difficult for me to grasp, thank you. And yes, of course, in the movie there is more time spent on the trial, pound for pound, than there is in the book. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Atticus Finch we think of today is solely the result of Gregory Peck’s performance. He made the role his own, yes, but he didn’t exactly invent Atticus out of whole cloth, either.
As for liberals hijacking Finch, all I can say is, some of the same people that say this blame gay marriage for earthquakes and hurricanes. Hardly worth discussing.
Maybe instead of liberal leanings, many people embraced the character regardless of their backgrounds, because he was well written, and stood for something of moral importance to many people. Maybe that’s why so many readers lament the “fall” of Finch, when in fact, as I have demonstrated, it isn’t even the same Finch to start out with, forget the 20 years later.
The idea of changing the established arc of an existing set of characters is known as retconning. It’s done most often in comic books, and in science fiction in various media, though not exclusively. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of retconning comes to us from fantasy author J.R.R.Tolkien in The Fellowship of the Ring.
The events described in The Hobbit we learn eventually, are not accurate, but rather the result of the One True Ring corrupting the memory of Bilbo Baggins. Those books deal with magic and fantasy, and they can get away with it. But unless we determine that in Mockingbird Scout somehow falsely remembered the trial from her childhood, or just plain lied about it in Mockingbird, this sort of retconning doesn’t excuse these discrepancies.
Could it come to light that it was Lee’s intention all along that Mockingbird be seen a child’s hagiographic whitewashing of her memories of her actually racist father, Atticus? I guess that could happen, but if it did, quite frankly, that tanks just about everything we know about Lee as an author, I would guess. Such a Bobby Ewing maneuver would almost certainly ruin Mockingbird forever. But let’s not delve into the deep end of the absurdity pool just yet.
So at best, Watchman, which supposedly Lee did not allow to be altered this summer before publication, (save a “very light copy edit”) is a stand alone work, which according to some reputable sources is a bit of a mess.
All of this hype and mis-categorization, as well as my personal understandings of the nature of drafts would be enough to keep me from reading Watchman. It should not have been published, even if that were all there was to it.
Yet I have more, probably better reasons than this, the welfare and intentions of Harper Lee herself. I am not convinced she intended this to be published, or that she remains fully aware of what has happened with this manuscript.
Let’s say for a moment, though, that she is now, and has been 100% aware of everything happening with the Watchman manuscript, and has approved of all of it. What we have, at best, is a much loved, though reclusive and sometimes prickly author deciding to push a seemingly undeveloped novel, (as per many reports) on the public, and doing so at the risk of confusing or even ruining the unique reputation and esteem of her historic work. Assuming again that Harper Lee is 100% lucid, 100% of the time, the woman is not beyond reproach for her decisions. All of the sudden deciding that yes, she would change her long standing position against publishing anything else, but no, she would not allow anybody to make changes to it is both a money grab and a power trip at this point in time.
She absolutely has the right to do it. It’s her material, and nobody is going to say no to Harper Lee this time. Yet if she has no problem throwing a monkey wrench into the well oiled machine that is the Mockingbird mystique while still refusing to grant any direct interviews or statements to clear up her intentions, that is more disappointing in some ways than a racist version of Atticus Finch. I’d want no part of Watchman out of protest for her taking such an attitude.
Yet the laziness, presumption, and overall about-face required to present Watchman to the world now without having read it in over half a century doesn’t gel with the Lee persona. Intensely private, yes. Reclusive, of course. Even crabby when not left alone. (She has given no interviews since 1964.) But arrogant? Manipulative? Greedy? Litigious? If these traits represent the true Harper Lee, she has done a fantastic job fooling the whole world all these years.
Yet, Occam’s Razor comes to mind. The simplest explanation for all of this to me is that Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and national treasure had no independent desire to publish one of her long locked-away drafts. To be more blunt about it I, like many, suspect that the woman is no longer consistently in her proper mind, and has been hoodwinked.
I’ve considered how Lee’s actions and behaviors, at least via legal proceedings have changed since the death of her sister and lawyer, Alice in 2014. I’ve considered previously documented incidents wherein Lee seems to have signed papers unwittingly, or at least without knowing the consequences in the last few years. I’ve considered her abrupt change of attitude in regards to the stage version of Mockingbird. I’ve considered the increasingly small circle of people who are permitted to be in Harper Lee’s presence, as well as the fact that even those allowed to see her are now escorted into and out of Lee’s home by her sister’s successor, the lawyer Tonja Carter.
I consider that all statements from Lee for several years have come only through said lawyer or associates.
Perhaps most of all, however, I have considered the so called elder abuse investigation by the state of Alabama, (launched as the result of a tip from a currently unnamed medical doctor). This investigation was conducted not by medical or psychological personnel, but by members of Alabama’s Securities Commission, who usually deal with financial fraud. Those unqualified people found Lee to be lucid based on conversation with her, and closed the investigation in April.
Really? Financial fraud experts determining the mental health of an elderly (and wealthy) stroke victim? No doubt Carter, Lee’s lawyer, was present at all times.
Not that Carter is known for accuracy. She seems confused, or possibly elusive as to the provenance of the Watchman manuscript. What should we believe? We could ask Carter, but she grants almost no interviews. When she does agree to be interviewed, the subject of Harper Lee is off limits, as though anyone is worried about her thoughts on anything else.
But don’t worry; a bunch of financial fraud guys confirm that the author is 100% lucid, all of the time.
Not to put too fine a point on such a sad possibility, but if Lee is mentally impaired now, she could be very willing and aware that she is publishing Watchman today, and tomorrow not have the slightest idea that it has even been discovered. Had the Watchman manuscript come to light, say, 15 years ago, before her stroke, when her mind was not in question, she may have been totally opposed to publishing Watchman, a position she may have again now, between days when she is “happy as hell” to have it published.
Which means, of course, that an encouraging video of a joyful Harper Lee from earlier this week does not settle the issue.
So, have I proven that Harper Lee is not mentally competent? Of course I have not. I certainly don’t know what is going on inside Harper Lee’s mind, or if that mind is still in tact. I’m not a doctor, after all. (Nor an Alabama Securities Commission investigator for that matter.) Yet this is not a trial, or a hearing. This is me, Ty Unglebower, writer and indie-publisher assessing a situation of profound importance not only to the world of writing, but in regards to how we treat the elderly, and how much we allow money to talk. As such, I can consider a preponderance of the evidence, as they do in a civil trial, and determine that Harper Lee is not in a position to make major decisions on her own, and furthermore never intended the book to be published. I want no parts of paying for it and reading its contents.
My boycott will of course mean nothing. Tens of thousands of copies were sold in the first few hours. Millions will eventually be sold, no doubt. Many if not most will still love it, despite everything I have mentioned in this post. And of course the launch celebrations went on, and will continue to go on in Lee’s hometown and inspiration for Maycomb, Monroeville, Alabama. (A veritable midway of Mockingbird tributes and kitsch.)
A recently reopened restaurant in Monroeville, the Prop and Gavel, has been and no doubt will continue to serve as a focal point of many of those celebrations, as hungry tourists pore in to be part of it all. The restaurant is owned by Tonja Carter…Harper Lee’s lawyer, spokesman and brainchild behind the discovery and publication of Go Set a Watchman. (As well as a potential third Lee novel…)
If I may be so bold, though a lawyer she may be, Atticus Finch (Mockingbird edition) she is not.