A discussion of Harper Lee’s long-expected second novel Go Set a Watchman
When 31-year-old Harper Lee first entered the office of publishing house J. B. Lippincott & Co., neither she, nor her editor could have expected her manuscript to become the global phenomenon it has become. The manuscript, titled Atticus, fell into the hands of editor Tay Hohoff, who described it as “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”. Yet, Hohoff saw potential, and guided Lee through an editing process that was to take three years and resulted in a 336 page novel called To Kill a Mockingbird.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Since 1960, Mockingbird sold over 40 million copies, won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and was made into an Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck, one of the most popular film stars of the time, in the “almost-title role” of Atticus. With its revolutionary theme of racial inequality in 1930’s Alabama and its original narrative style – we experience the story through the eyes of 6-year-old tomboy Scout – Lee has written a novel that has captivated a global audience for generations. Today, Mockingbird is still required reading in almost every secondary school and remains one of the best-loved novels in history. Naturally, ever since 1960, the world has awaited debutant author Lee’s second novel with bated breath, but sadly, this novel never came.
It will not come as a surprise that when HarperCollins Publishers announced the very, very long-awaited sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird last February, the world went a bit crazy. Harper Lee, who was 89 at the time, had lived in seclusion, refusing interviews or any comments on forthcoming novels, since 1964. Could it really be possible that she had written a new novel after all this time? The answer, it turned out, was yes and no. Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was more of a re-working of Mockingbird than an entirely separate novel.
The protagonist is once again Scout, now in her late twenties. We follow her as she visits her hometown Maycomb (modelled after Lee’s hometown Monroeville, Alabama) reflecting on childhood memories and discussing mostly political and ethical matters with family members. Watchman does not really fit the description of ‘sequel’; perhaps ‘alternative version’ is more appropriate. The main plot of Mockingbird, the alleged rape of a white girl by a black man and the ensuing court case, is merely touched upon and although we come across many familiar characters, including Scout and Atticus, we see these characters in a radically different light. In Mockingbird, Atticus is portrayed as an almost saintlike knight in shining armour, who loses an unfair fight when he unsuccessfully attempts to defend the innocent Tom Robinson. Robinson is a coloured man who is accused of having raped a white girl, an accusation that is almost impossible to deny in the Southern United States of the 1930’s. Yet, Atticus defends him, claiming that he could not live with himself if he didn’t. In Watchman, however, we encounter an Atticus that reads pamphlets called ‘The Black Plague’ and attends Ku Klux Klan meetings, supposedly to see the people that hide behind the masks.
Understandably, many people were disappointed, or even outraged by this change in their well-known and well-loved Mockingbird characters. As Michiko Kakutani pointed out in her NY Times review, “people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus”. But let’s face it: encountering the same characters after 55 years was always going to be tricky. So maybe this book does not live up to its predecessor, and maybe Atticus is not the human saint generations of Mockingbird fans believed him to be, but maybe, this need not be an issue.
In all likelihood, Go Set a Watchman will not make Oprah’s Book Club and will not be standard reading material in every secondary school’s English class, and that’s OK. Perhaps the thing to focus on here is that we have been lucky enough to read at least one truly great novel by an incredibly talented narrator. So reread Mockingbird, visit the Monroeville courthouse, think of a new name to give to your children and be thankful for what Harper Lee has given us. And if you are determined to be disappointed by something, be disappointed by the fact that, should Watchman be made into a film, Gregory Peck won’t star in it.
(Header image courtesy of Marshall Ramsey via Creators Syndicate)