Go Set A Watchman

Nelle Harper Lee The book Go Set A Watchman is the second published novel by renowned Alabama author Nelle Harper Lee. On February 3, 2015, the literary world was stunned by an announcement from HarperCollins Publishers about the discovery and pending publication of the work. The book is the unedited version of Lee’s rejected original submission of To Kill A Mockingbird, her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Until the publication of Go Set A Watchman, Mockingbird would be her only published novel. Watchman was released on July 14, 2015, and its first day sales amounted to more than 700,000 copies, making it the most successful adult novel ever published in America. Both the announcement and the new book itself launched an international media and cultural firestorm that continued for many months.

Lee originally delivered the manuscript to her editor at Lippincott’s early in 1957. Neither her agent at the time, Maurice Crain, nor her editor, Tay Hohoff, much liked it and urged her to adapt the brilliant characterizations of a small-town southern childhood to a different setting and plot. Lee responded by writing a story about Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a young girl in a small southern town who learns to see the racism that pervades her society and how it affects the people around her. In subsequent years, Lee’s biographers would suggest that she absorbed most of the Watchman manuscript into what became internationally acclaimed novel To Kill A Mockingbird. This hypothesis was disproved when Watchman was published. In fact, the novels are substantially different.

To Kill A Mockingbird Although Watchman contains familiar names from Mockingbird and has flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood, the story revolves around a 26-year-old Jean Louise visiting Maycomb near the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. In Watchman, Atticus Finch is aging and infirm; Jim is dead; Dill lives in Europe; Calpurnia is alienated from the Finch family and most of Maycomb’s white population; and Jean Louise’s relationship with her relatives has collapsed into acrimony, alienation, and confrontation. In a pivotal scene, Jean Louise accidentally wanders upon a White Citizens Council meeting in the town’s historic courthouse and secretly listens from her location in the segregated balcony. What she overhears stuns and enrages her. Henry Clinton, her unofficial fiancée and her father’s law partner, and Atticus Finch are trying to wrest control of the fledgling racist organization from its more violent spokesmen. Jean Louise is appalled and confronts her boyfriend, father, uncle, aunt, and childhood acquaintances about their racism. Much of Watchman centers on these confrontations.

Because Lee lacked literary confidence in her writing in 1957 and because her rewrite of Watchman into Mockingbird was so spectacularly successful, she never returned to her unfinished manuscript. Published in its unedited state, just as Lee had left it six decades earlier, the book generally disappointed both critics and fans. Although some praised Jean Louise’s emotional rants to her father as a searing, honest, and accurate portrayal of 1950s race relations, they also criticized Lee’s dialogue as preachy and excessively long, her characterizations as superficial and one-dimensional, and her writing in general as lacking polish and attention to detail. Reader reactions varied, as reported in the media. Those who were drawn to the justice message of Mockingbird criticized Jean Louise’s reconciliation with her deeply flawed racist father, while those who relied on Mockingbird to illustrate that not all white southerners were racists were appalled by her portrayal of their beloved Atticus Finch as having racist paternalistic attitudes and questioned their favorite novelist’s desire to reopen so many old wounds.

During the run up to the 2015 publication, racial violence in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; and Charleston, South Carolina, created an environment that conditioned readers to view Watchman similarly to the way readers had understood Mockingbird in 1960, as a race-centered novel. But it better fits under the rubric of philosopher Joseph Campbell’s mythic “hero with a thousand faces” concept: the story of a strong woman or man setting out on a journey of dangerous discovery who, once enlightened, can never return to the “banalities and noisy obscenities” of their former home or life.

The novel also presents themes relating the Bible and Christian theology in telling an epic story of youthful innocence overtaken by adult sin, as well as concepts of judgment, alienation, confrontation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Lee was a devoted Methodist and her works reflect her biblical studies. The novel’s cryptic biblical title, taken from Isaiah 21:6 (King James Version) is about Isaiah prophesying about the fall of Babylon (Assyria, according to some biblical scholars): “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” With this biblical allusion, Lee likens Maycomb to Babylon (Assyria) and indicates that someone needs to be set as the watchman to identify what needs to be changed. In the story, Jean Louise can be seen as filling the role of watchman in identifying the sins of and warning of God’s judgement against an arrogant, wayward place.

The February 2015 announcement of the pending publication of Watchman generated a virtual storm of rumors, counter rumors, personality clashes, and conspiracy theories that swirled through Lee’s hometown, Monroeville. The fact that Lee had not published a novel since To Kill A Mockingbird in July 1960 and had been reported over the years as claiming she would not publish another novel, quickly became an issue. Much of the controversy focused on rumors about Lee’s involvement, or lack thereof, in the publication and control of her literary work. Lee’s health also contributed to rumors. The author, who had maintained a residence in New York City from 1949, suffered a stroke and return permanently to Monroeville in 2007. At the time of the announcement, she was living at an assisted-living facility but was mentally alert and able to converse with visitors. Adding to the speculation about Lee’s approval of the novel’s publication was the publicity surrounding a 2013 lawsuit charging her literary agent, Sam Pinkus, with stealing Lee’s copyright and royalties (a case settled out of court by the restoration of both). Another factor that contributed significantly to the controversy was that the announcement came only a few months after the death of Lee’s protective sister, attorney Alice Lee, in November 2014. The role of Alice’s law partner and designated successor, Tonja Carter, in Watchman’s discovery and publication deepened the dispute.

According to Carter, she found the original manuscript in August 2014 in a safety-deposit box attached to the back of an early typescript of Mockingbird. But in July 2015, reporters for the New York Times declared that the manuscript was discovered in October, 2011, by Carter, Pinkus, and Justin Caldwell, a rare books expert from Sotheby’s Auction House in London, thereby raising questions as to why the public announcement was delayed until after Alice’s death, nearly four years later. Carter countered that she knew nothing of their discovery and that on the day in question she had opened the bank box for the two men, remained with them for a short amount of time, and then left to run errands.

Some longtime Monroeville residents, resentful of Carter, whom they perceived as a relative newcomer, and grieving the death of the 103-year-old Alice Lee, told reporters that Carter had manipulated the entire affair for her own profit, isolated the famous author from friends and acquaintances, and shielded her from contact with media. The Lee family, however, expressed confidence in Carter’s handling of the affair. Lee relished the privacy that Carter afforded her by dealing with enquiring visitors, curious locals, and hundreds of reporters who descended on the tiny town, interviewing anyone in sight and printing their largely uninformed opinions.

Meanwhile pre-publication orders for the novel sent it soaring to the top of the New York Times best seller list with Mockingbird trailing just behind. On the day of the publication, Monroeville’s population was swollen by reporters from around the world. The town’s streets were choked with sound trucks, television cameras, and special events organized by the Monroeville Chamber of Commerce and the Alabama Tourism Department.

Finally able to sample the book’s contents for themselves, readers reached different conclusions about its history and meaning. From most literary critics’s point of view Watchman, Lee’s first written work, falls short of the towering brilliance of Mockingbird (her second book). But many readers appreciated Lee’s tortured racial fiction.

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