Literary storm over lost Mockingbird companion

Reluctant hero: The intensely private Harper Lee has refused to published for 55 years © PA

Go Set A Watchman was Harper Lee’s first attempt at a novel, written years before To Kill A Mockingbird made her a literary hero. Today it appears in print for the first time. But should it?

Scout. Boo Radley. Atticus Finch. To millions of people, these are miraculous words: they conjure at a glance the vivid world of Maycomb, a small Alabama town that provides the setting for the widely adored American novel To Kill A Mockingbird.

It is 55 years since Harper Lee’s masterpiece was published, and since then not a word of hers has appeared in print — until today. Go Set A Watchman, published this morning, was actually written before Mockingbird; yet it takes place later in the characters’ lives. It describes Scout returning to Maycomb as a young woman to find the town struggling to adapt to the changing racial politics of post-war America.

Watchman is already among the great publishing phenomena of recent times. It has been pre-ordered more times than any book since the final instalment of the Harry Potter series and sat at the top of best-seller lists months before its publication. This morning fans queued outside bookshops in the early hours, desperate to be among the first to get their hands on a copy. Some were even serenaded by Dixieland jazz as they shopped.

But even this fanfare has failed to dispel a deep disquiet about the publication of the new book. Some of the uncertainty comes from its contents. Atticus Finch is not the wise, generous father figure whose brave defence of an innocent black man made him one of literature’s great saints. Instead he is a racist and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Another key character is casually declared dead in a passing clause of chapter one.

The most troubling questions surrounding the novel, however, arise from the world beyond its pages: it is far from clear that the reclusive author wanted her book to be read. For decades Lee has hidden herself and her writings from the world, with her older sister Alice fiercely guarding her privacy. Last year, Alice died; Lee herself is blind, deaf and possibly senile. Her publishers insist that she is ‘humbled and amazed’ by Watchman’s reception. Yet her statements have come through her agent and attorney, whom many of Lee’s friends and fans seriously distrust.

Publish or perish?

This is no cause for celebration, say suspicious critics: this book is being published against its author’s will by vulture publishers cynically exploiting a vulnerable old woman for financial gain. Regardless of its literary merits, Watchman should never have seen the light of day.

But should an author’s wishes always be respected? Not necessarily, some literary scholars say: if they were, the works of geniuses like Franz Kafka and Emily Dickinson might today be nothing but ash — and the world would be poorer for it. Truly great writing belongs not to the author but to the world.

You Decide

  1. Should Go Set A Watchman have been published? Will you read it?
  2. Go Set A Watchman portrays some familiar characters in a very different light. Should that change how we read the original?

Activities

  1. Imagine you’ve been bequeathed a lost masterpiece by an author whose work you have studied, along with a letter from the writer instructing you to burn it. As a class, debate whether you should respect the author’s wishes.
  2. Read the first chapter of Go Set A Watchman (which is in the Become An Expert links) and write a review. Include comparisons with To Kill A Mockingbird if you have read it.

Some People Say...

“People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.”

Harper Lee

What do you think?

Q & A

So is this book worth reading?
The critics who have read it already have been fairly favourable in their reviews, though few rate it as highly as Mockingbird. Many say it is less like a ‘sequel’ to Lee’s great work than an earlier attempt: ‘a first step towards a literary masterpiece’. In that case it’s interesting at the very least as an insight into how the novel evolved.
These books deal with issues that were relevant to 1950s Americans. Why should they matter to me?
Great books transcend their immediate subjects. To Kill A Mockingbird is a wise, moving reflection on a child’s loss of innocence and the lessons she learns about tolerance and empathy. It has touched millions, around the world and across generations, and there’s a reason for that. Give it a go, if you haven’t already.

Word Watch

Dixieland
‘Dixie’ is a nickname for the American south — the portion of the country where slavery dominated the economy until 1860. It was here that jazz first started to develop from its roots in African music.
Reclusive
Lee hated the publicity that Mockingbird won her, describing it as ‘like being hit over the head and knocked cold.’
Seriously distrust
According to some accounts, Lee’s attorney has already cheated her out of a lot of money.
Franz Kafka
A Czech writer with a uniquely distinctive and influential style: his surreal, claustrophobic and darkly comic stories (such as Metamorphosis and The Trial) spawned the adjective ‘Kafkaesque’. He burned 90% of his work and asked a friend to destroy the rest after his death. Thankfully, the friend refused.
Emily Dickinson
A profoundly shy, eccentric and reclusive poet whose pithy, fragmented verses are thought of as some of the greatest works ever produced by an American writer. She locked her poems away and probably wanted them burned; they were only published after her death by the efforts of her sister.

Subjects

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