The publication of ‘Go Set A Watchman’ has led to great excitement among readers and frenzied speculation among the media. Feeding this excitement has been the ‘knowledge’ that Harper Lee has kept this book under wraps for many years.
Joe Nocera, writing in the New York Times calls the publication of this ‘new’ Harper Lee novel ‘a phoney literary event,’ manufactured by the Rupert Murdock owned Harper Collins.
According to his article, the novel was not ‘discovered’ in 2014 shortly before Alice, Harper Lee’s sister and protector died, but earlier, in 2011, by Tonja Carter who became Harper Lee’s protector after the death of her sister.
In Nocera’s article, Harper Lee’s integrity as a writer has been disrespected by the publication of a work which in its time was not considered suitable for publication but is now regarded as a money spinner – which according to HarperCollins has sold over a million copies in a week.
‘Go Set A Watchman’ was, we are told, the original version of ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird.’ A version which was rejected and that she was advised to change, to rewrite, and reshape. Most of these changes seem to have been about the redrawing of one of the central characters: Atticus Finch.
In the rewrite, Atticus was shaped into a wonderful father, set to be famed as one with great intelligence and bravery. A man with strong principles and beliefs about race for which he was willing to sacrifice a great deal. In other words, Atticus Finch was a hero, heroes are marketable.
Whatever the truth, in the new story, Atticus is far from being a hero, he is a racist, a Klan supporter – everything the original Atticus abhorred and above all a source of shame and disappointment to his daughter.
This disappointment may also be shared by many To Kill A Mocking Bird fans. For whom the old saying ‘never meet your hero’ is profoundly is never more true than when Atticus Finch is pulled from his plinth and revealed to be just another southern racist.
But why such disappointment? Many writers, especially in their early works, explore the personal truth of their own life experience. Harper Lee has never claimed ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ as entirely fiction, and she has been open in stating that she based various characters on real life people, even telling Oprah Winfrey that she herself is the Mocking Bird of the Story – the Boo Radley, who needs to exist in a quiet world away from prying eyes.
Publishers being publishers don’t want their writers or their characters to stay hidden in the background. There are no marketing opportunities in the quiet place. Harper Lee however, wasn’t a woman to be pushed into the limelight against her will. She made her choices and held her integrity tight. She was in a way, more Atticus than Boo Radley, for she was her own woman, a strong woman, and quite able to keep the noisy world at bay.
The Atticus in ‘Go Set A Watchman’ is far from being a hero. But was this racist Atticus reflecting a deep unpalatable truth about Harper Lee’s America at the time? If so, that same truth was probably regarded as worse than unpalatable; it was more than likely seen as unmarketable. As many fiction writers have discovered, the unpalatable may be published, but nothing closes the gate to publication as fast as a label of unmarketable.
Making the book marketable required the point of view of a child, one who could present the unpalatable world wrapped in a ribbon of innocence, but to be truly successful in the market the book needed a likeable central character – enter the new, rewritten Atticus Finch, a white hero – someone to ease the discomfort of liberal white readers and reflect back to them a more desirable ‘truth.’
The truth, desirable, or otherwise, may never be known, except to Harper Lee. However, if it is true that she actually wanted this book published then maybe it is because she has arrived at a time in her life when she feels safe in allowing her original unedited thoughts and perceptions be exposed to the world.
Times have changed considerably since ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ was published and perhaps America just might be ready to deal with the more accurate reflection of its dark side that she initially presented.
On the other hand, if she is unable to continue to have her wishes respected and if it is true that her protector and publishers have failed to respect her integrity as a writer and as a woman of thought, then that is more than sad, that is a tragedy.
Without any definitive word from the author we are left, at least for now, to read the book and decide for ourselves.