Go Set a Watchman

| November 17, 2015 | 0 Comments

Title: Go Set a Watchman
Author Harper Lee
Publisher: Heinemann
ISBN: 978-1-78-515028-9
Reviewed by: Fiona de Villiers

Go Set a Watchman (GSAW) by Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee has been one of the year’s most controversial releases.

Whether you’re planning to pair it as a set-work alongside its author’s most famous work To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) (published in 1960) for one of your classes, or to investigate it on its own, you’re in for a potentially thrilling time.

The study will naturally lend itself to that Holy Grail: critical thinking. Lay a few key clues in your students’ path and prepare for the air to be peppered with questions!

Upon release in July 2015, GSAW soared straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Almost immediately, publishing house HarperCollins announced that it had sold more than 1.1 million copies in a week’s time, making it the “fastest-selling book in company history”. Why? (Here you’re letting your students in on the more seamy side of publishing, if you let them discover online how the book was marketed pre- release.) In addition, urge them to discuss the impact of the information on the book’s dustjacket: my copy of GSAW assured me that I was about to read “An unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humour and effortless precision…”

Where is Harper Lee?

Says well-respected New York Times reviewer, Joe Nocera, The… fact about Harper Lee is that after publishing her beloved novel, To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, she not only never published another book; for most of that time she insisted she never would. Until now, that is, when she’s 89, a frail, hearing- and sight-impaired stroke victim living in a nursing home. Perhaps just as important, her sister Alice, Lee’s long-time protector, passed away last November. Her new protector, Tonja Carter, who had worked in Alice Lee’s law office, is the one who brought the “new novel” to HarperCollins’s attention, claiming, conveniently, to have found it shortly before Alice died.

No comment from Harper Lee herself has surfaced. Why is this? you may ask your students. You may also posit the important question: should the reader by rights study the writer? In this case, who was Harper Lee? Why did she write TKAM? What was happening in America at the time? Why did the novel receive the Pulitzer Prize? Why did she say she would never write another novel? In this context, where did the manuscript for GSAW come from and when? Who stands to gain from this novel’s 2015 release?

A problematic puzzle

Such an investigation has the makings of a great detective story and should lead your students to a further GSAW-related ‘literary problem’. Because TKAM is a literary classic, beloved by many and brought to life in the film
starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, readers have been simultaneously sentimental and greedy to see if GSAW was more of the same.

Global disappointment with both content and style was almost palpable. Pointing to another problematic aspect, Maureen Corrigan, writing for National Public Radio, opined that: “Go Set a Watchman is a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically, beginning with its fishy origin story. Allegedly, it’s a recently discovered first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m suspicious: it reads much more like a failed sequel. There are lots of dead patches in Go Set a Watchman, pages where we get long explanations of, say, the fine points of the Methodist worship service.”

David Ulin of the Los Angeles Times wrote that: “Despite its potential for drama, Lee develops her story through long dialogue sequences that read less like conversation than competing arguments. There is little sense of urgency and key aspects of the narrative – Jean Louise’s naïveté, for one thing, her inability to see Maycomb for what it is – are left largely unresolved.”

Michiko Kakutani, again in the New York Times, expressed a widely shared shock: “In Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, Go Set a Watchman, Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter: ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?’”

Brilliant Books weighs in

At this point, it’s worth sharing with your students the story of Brilliant Books, an independent bookstore in Traverse City, Michigan, in the United States. After the negative reactions to GSAW and connected heated debates, owner Peter Makin felt obliged to do two things: to offer a refund to those who had bought GSAW from his store and found it disappointing, and to release the following public statement:
We at Brilliant Books want to be sure that our customers are aware that Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel or prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Neither is it a new book. It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected. The book, and some of the characters therein, are very much a product of [a particular] era in the South.
We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel… It is disappointing and frankly shameful to see our noble industry parade and celebrate this as “Harper Lee’s New Novel.” This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved American classic (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted.) We therefore encourage you to view Go Set a Watchman with intellectual curiosity and careful consideration; a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.

down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.” 􏰀

Brilliant Books weighs in

At this point, it’s worth sharing with your students the story of Brilliant Books, an independent bookstore in Traverse City, Michigan, in the United States. After the negative reactions to GSAW and connected heated debates, owner Peter Makin felt obliged to do two things: to offer a refund to those who had bought GSAW from his store and found it disappointing, and to release the following public statement:

We at Brilliant Books want to be sure that our customers are aware that Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel or prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Neither is it a new book. It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected. The book, and some of the characters therein, are very much a product of [a particular] era in the South.
We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel… It is disappointing and frankly shameful to see our noble industry parade and celebrate this as “Harper Lee’s New Novel.” This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved American classic (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted.) We therefore encourage you to view Go Set a Watchman with intellectual curiosity and careful consideration; a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.

Nocera is in agreement, saying: “[Lee] took a character who was a racist in the first draft and turned him into the saintly lawyer Atticus Finch who stands up to his town’s bigotry in defending a black man. He becomes the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Therefore, argues Nocera, it’s a pointless exercise to compare the Atticus Finch in TKAM with the Atticus Finch of GSAW. The debate is definitely worth expanding in your classroom. Should we then compare the two portrayals of Scout? Is it fair to mount any comparisons at all?

Points to ponder

Other contexts, however, demand examination. It’s worth finding out from your students, given the current national and international broiling racial climate, how they feel about the derogatory epithets sprinkled liberally throughout both texts. Is the Atticus Finch of GSAW, after all is said and done, a realistic portrayal of modern racial bigotry?

Once the inevitable storm in your classroom has settled, it seems only fair to offer your students, as a further point to ponder, Lee’s own words, given in interview in 1964, when she was a very young writer overwhelmed by her own sudden success: “I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing … is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this – the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.”

Category: Summer 2015

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