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Review: Harper Lee's 'Go Set a Watchman' a disappointing story that mars a legacy

Jane MacAdam, far left, and Ginny Bordeaux emboss copies of "Go Set a Watchman" in Ol' Curiosities & Book Shoppe on the book's release date in the hometown of "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee,  in Monroeville, Ala., Tuesday, July 14, 2015.  A full day of celebrations is planned, including readings, tours and a mint julep cocktail hour outside the old courthouse.  (AP Photo/Andrea Mabry) ALAM102
Jane MacAdam, far left, and Ginny Bordeaux emboss copies of "Go Set a Watchman" in Ol' Curiosities & Book Shoppe on the book's release date in the hometown of "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee, in Monroeville, Ala., Tuesday, July 14, 2015. A full day of celebrations is planned, including readings, tours and a mint julep cocktail hour outside the old courthouse. (AP Photo/Andrea Mabry) ALAM102
Published Dec. 16, 2015

Having read Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, my first reaction is that I'm not sure why it was taken out of that safe deposit box, or wherever it has been stashed since 1957.

Or rather, I do have an idea why, but it's not a pretty one.

Also not pretty: the very different version of Atticus Finch that is a main character in Watchman. He is 20 years older than the heroic small-town attorney of Lee's beloved To Kill a Mockingbird and instead of being a quiet crusader for racial equality, he's a stereotypical Southern bigot.

Some reviews of the book have called this Atticus a Klan member and an extreme racist, but that goes a little far. We learn he attended one Klan meeting as a young man, in order to find out who was behind the hoods. But he is certainly a man of his time, place and class — he compares black people to children, believes ardently in segregation and expresses scorn for the NAACP and for the federal government's efforts toward bringing racial equality, tentative as those were in the 1950s.

In the description in Watchman of the rape trial at the heart of Mockingbird, his brother Jack notes that Atticus took the case out of abstract love for the law, not because he cared about racial injustice. When he accepts a request to defend a black man accused of a crime in Watchman, it's only to prevent the NAACP's lawyers from taking the case and "stirring up trouble." His racist attitudes are the crux of the book, as his now-grown daughter comes home from New York City for a visit and is appalled to discover them.

In any other novel set in small-town Alabama in the '50s, this man would simply be historically accurate, if repugnant in many ways to 21st century readers. But this is Atticus Finch, perhaps the most beloved and revered character in American literature. Adoring readers name their children and pets after him. His integrity, courage and attitudes about racial inequality are at the core of Mockingbird and its considerable influence on American culture.

So why are we now reading about an Atticus who is the polar opposite of the one we know?

Atticus aside, as a literary achievement, Watchman is in no way the equal of Mockingbird. It's a rather clumsy coming-of-age story about 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch, the Scout of Mockingbird. It has some spots of amusing social satire, almost no plot and a whole lot of very long-winded conversations.

It reads like a first draft, and no wonder. Although it has just been published, Watchman is in fact Lee's first novel. She submitted it to publisher J.P. Lippincott in 1957. It was rejected, but her editor, Tay Hohoff, suggested she develop another novel based on Jean Louise's childhood memories. Lee did, and the result, Mockingbird, was published in 1960.

In that revision process, the racist in Watchman was transformed into the admirable Atticus we have known. Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize, became an Oscar-winning 1962 film that featured Gregory Peck's indelible performance as Atticus, sold more than 40 million copies and came to be considered a classic American novel.

Lee never made another attempt to publish Watchman, and it was forgotten for decades. She has lived a determinedly private life and reportedly began but never published other books; Mockingbird stood alone.

Then, last year, the manuscript of Watchman was found by Tonja Carter, Lee's attorney, reportedly in a safe deposit box in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala.

Carter has been the sole conduit of communication with Lee since the book's discovery and publication were announced by her publisher, HarperCollins, in February. Lee is 89, partly deaf and blind, and has lived in an assisted living home since a stroke in 2007. There are so far unresolved questions about whether she really made the decision to publish the book. (In a column for the Wall Street Journal published Monday, Carter said she might have found a third book in that safe deposit box.)

Although Watchman's publication was announced with great fanfare, its contents were kept under wraps as if they were the plans for D-day. HarperCollins issued only the briefest description of the plot (one that covered, as it turns out, only the first chapter) and said the book would be published as found, without editing. It declined to distribute review copies to critics ahead of publication, and there was no hint of the possibility that the alternate Atticus could disturb and disappoint readers.

Lee's legion of fans happily made Watchman the most pre-ordered book in HarperCollins' history, and its first printing was 2 million copies.

After a few early reviews disclosed the book's contents, social media began to reflect some readers' doubts about whether they wanted to read it.

The secrecy about the book's content now looks less like a clever marketing ploy and more like a con job. I don't question that there are good reasons to publish this book (or any other); if nothing else, it has value as a window into Lee's writing and revising process.

But I do question the disingenuous way it was marketed. Would announcing from the get-go that Watchman depicts Atticus as a racist have presold as many copies as the pig-in-a-poke version?

Maybe time will prove that Watchman is a significant literary work that, read in tandem with Mockingbird, will enlarge our understanding of racism in America.

Or maybe Watchman will soon recede to the back shelves of book stores and the depths of Amazon rankings, just a flash in the pan — but one that forever changed readers' perception of its author's best known work.

To me, what it looks like right now is a cynical money grab by Lee's handlers and her publisher. All it might cost them is the dimming of the reputation of a beloved author, the dismantling of an iconic American character and the breaking of a few million readers' hearts.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.