Michel and I have been having a lot of discussions around the idea of posthumous publishing recently. Frequently, publishers promote a “found” or “lost” work by an otherwise popular and/or successful author who has passed away, generating a lot of promotion and expectations around a work that may or may not actually be publication worthy. Case in point: recently, a volume of previously unpublished short stories by Elmore Leonard, Michel’s favorite author, was published. Michel strongly believes that Leonard is a master of the short story genre and yet, as a super fan, he is unsettled by these “found” works. A quick search for reviews seems to confirm his fears: these stories aren’t great. So then the question becomes: should this work have been published or not? Leonard certainly didn’t publish them during his lifetime, and he was a successful enough writer to publish whatever he wanted, regardless of quality. And if not, what should be done with it?
Though the brilliant Harper Lee is not yet dead, the question, I think, still applies and was in the back of my mind as I started reading my pre-ordered copy of her Go Set a Watchman. I don’t wish to get into all of the details, many of which I still find to be muddied and murky, but here is the situation in a nutshell: Lee’s lawyer discovered an early manuscript in a safe deposit box which turned out to be Go Set a Watchman. She then passed the manuscript to Lee’s editor, who got it published. Of course, the excitement surrounding the “discovery” of a “new work” by Harper Lee took the country by storm, yet interwoven in all of this literary hullabaloo were whispers and allegations of controversy surrounding Lee’s physical and mental health and concerns regarding her ability to consent to publication. There are many more details and nuances and parties involved, but suffice to say, the entire situation made me nervous and uncomfortable. Yet as a devoted multi-time reader of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, I felt the need to read whatever this book turned out to be.
So let’s start with what Go Set a Watchman isn’t. It is not To Kill a Mockingbird. It is not a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. It is not a prequel or revision or in any way connected to To Kill a Mockingbird. But, Elizabeth! you say. It is about Scout and Atticus and all of our favorite and not so favorite inhabitants of Maycomb, Alabama! Perhaps, but this is what has gotten people into trouble since the book’s publication. You see, people are upset because Atticus, our dear, beloved, moral center of the country, goddamned national treasure Atticus Finch (played by another goddamned national treasure, Gregory Peck) is racist. A member of the KKK. And that’s what’s freaked people out, and that is why Go Set a Watchman cannot be read within the To Kill a Mockingbird universe.
Because it’s not. Go Set a Watchman is set in an alternate universe in which Jem dies young, Uncle Jack is around all the time, Jean Louise (not Scout anymore) is going/not going with an entire character who didn’t make the cut in TKAM, Boo Radley gets nary a mention, and Atticus is an old racist rationalizing his actions away. Weird, right? It is a really simple story about Jean Louise coming down to Maycomb from New York to visit for two weeks; waffling about whether or not to marry Henry (the poor childhood friend turned paramour who gets chopped from the final version); reminiscing about her childhood with Jem, Henry, and Dill (Dill!), which takes up nearly half the book; getting philosophical with Uncle Jack; and, most importantly, realizing that her sainted father is not the saint she took him to be. The facade starts to crumble when she spies him in a meeting of the local Citizen’s Council, a group focused on slowing the enfranchisement of southern African Americans in the early and mid-20th century, and continues in their confrontation regarding his paternalistic views on the issue. In the climactic scene where Jean Louise rips Atticus to shreds for not living up to her image of him, he makes his point: it is now up to Jean Louise to be her own moral compass rather than rely on him and that she is right to take him to task for his surprising views. It is a completely different story (though the beginnings of the idea for TKAM are clear, particularly in the flashbacks showing the relationship between Scout and Jem, Dill, Calpurnia, and Atticus respectively, along with multiple mentions of the trial that became the center of TKAM).
So is Atticus racist? In Go Set a Watchmen, yeah. Henry tries to rationalize away Atticus’s actions of attending one KKK meeting saying that the KKK meeting made him sick and he only went to unmask the opposition. Yet Henry can’t rationalize away the fact that though Atticus may not condone the KKK, as some media outlets feared when this information was revealed, he does not support the work of the NAACP and others to enfranchise southern African Americans. And Jean Louise calls him on this.
That’s the difference right there: Go Set a Watchman is about the moral and ethical education and development of one individual with Jean Louise Finch functioning as the burgeoning moral center. To Kill a Mockingbird is about the moral and ethical education and development of a community and, therefore, a nation by the one and only Atticus Finch.
I think that’s what upsets people about the idea of Atticus being racist: so many of us learned about goodness, kindness, justice, right vs. wrong, and basic human decency from Atticus Finch, whether through our parents’ reading, our own reading, or a combination. So for that to be seemingly upended in this “new” novel is confusing and shocking and highly emotional. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Peck, son of Gregory, said about the book and the character, “The Atticus of Watchman is a completely different character from the Atticus of Mockingbird even if it’s born of the same imagination.” And that’s important to remember. Yes, Atticus of Watchman is racist, but that does not mean that Atticus of Mockingbird, the real Atticus, is, nor does it negate any of the lessons so integral to Mockingbird’s success and longevity.
So, then, what is Go Set a Watchman? It is the germ of an idea that lead to a truly breathtaking and historic novel. It is the first step of a creative process that allowed us as a country to turn Lee’s magnifying glass on ourselves and examine what it meant to be human. And it is the first glimpse of Lee’s truly remarkable talent as a writer.
Let’s end with my initial question: Should this have been published, particularly for commercial consumption? Stephen Peck feels his father, who developed a close friendship with Lee, would say no, and I think I agree (although I obviously got over that qualm quickly enough). So what should have happened then? I think that the manuscript should absolutely been made available to the public via a university or a research library. It is of great value, particularly in exploring the writing process. Go Set a Watchman is definitely an important part of our literary history. And since it was published, we should be talking about it. More importantly, though, I think we should all thank the publisher who had the foresight to see the potential in these flashback sections of Watchmen and tell Harper Lee, “I think you have a better and more important story to tell.”