By JOE AUCIELLO
Harper Lee, “Go Set A Watchman,” (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 288 pp., $27.99.
Why throw away the Christmas turkey after it’s been eaten? It can still be used. Take the carcass, simmer with water, and the bones make a good stock for soup. Take the carcass of a popular novel—its discarded rough draft—place it between hard covers, and these bones can make for a best seller. The difference is that one is honest and thrifty while the other is dishonest and shifty.
HarperCollins is a company that knows what to do with leftovers. Given the popularity of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” was inevitable.
“Mockingbird” has sold millions of copies and has never been out of print since its publication in 1960. The film version released in 1962 won three Academy Awards, brought many more readers to the book, and helped lift the story of Jean Louise Finch (“Scout”) to a select status of beloved novels. Every graduate of an American high school knows the stories of Huck, Holden, and Scout. Their misadventures make up no small part of the national-curriculum-by-consensus of American education.
But “Go Set a Watchman” is Harper Lee’s failed, first attempt at what eventually came to be “To Kill a Mockingbird”—her only authentic novel. Promoted as a sequel or as a companion piece that offers richer insight into “Mockingbird,” the new volume found an enthusiastic audience.
Immediately upon publication in 2015, “Go Set a Watchman” took top spot on the The New York Times best-seller category in hard-cover fiction. In its first week alone, the book sold more than 1.1 million copies. It was unwrapped under many a Christmas tree. This January, it remains in the top ten best-seller list.
Publication of “Watchman” was a shrewd commercial decision, but not a critical one. In fact, there is a real question if Ms. Lee, in her advanced old age, was capable of consenting to publication of the draft.
However it came to print, “Go Set a Watchman” is not a successful work of fiction, despite some moments of promise and insightful, ironic observation. Mostly, the plot plods along, tediously slow. Reading the book feels like driving behind a car that’s crawling about 15 miles per hour below the speed limit and brakes at every downhill slope and every bend in the road.
Without compiling a list, be assured that all the literary errors of the amateur novelist can be found in “Go Set a Watchman.” The most damaging offense may be Scout’s utterly implausible discovery—at age 26—that Atticus is not the decent and open-minded man she had believed him to be. Instead, her father is and always has been a sophisticated racist, vilifying the NAACP and the Supreme Court, while asserting that people of the backward “Negro” race are not yet ready to earn their rights as citizens.
To Scout, Atticus is a repellant stranger, like a “pod person” from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” an alien who appears human but who tellingly lacks a soul. When a Southern novel of manners veers off into science fiction territory, it is a sure sign that something has gone terribly wrong.
Within the structure of a clumsy coming-of-age narrative, Harper Lee intended to write a story that would explore Southern racism. From the conflicting, insider perspectives of white Southerners, she wanted to take a stand against intolerance and bigotry. Her literary challenge was to create a framework and a suitable set of characters to embody those warring beliefs.
“Go Set a Watchman” was a failed effort, but it contained the seeds of a better one. The crucial decision was to shift Atticus, a lawyer in a small, Southern town, into a defender of human rights, a fighter against racial injustice. This is the man of conscience who tells his children: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
With a newly defined Atticus, and with the addition of the mysterious recluse, Boo Radley (entirely absent from “Watchman”), the plot lines of “To Kill a Mockingbird” resolved themselves into themes of understanding and acceptance, rejection of ignorance and prejudice, especially white racism.
Lee had written a complete first draft, an initial attempt to think out and approximate her vision. An excellent editor encouraged her to set it aside and begin anew. No need to dignify the publisher’s scheme by calling this effort a novel. Nor is there a need to keep it locked away.
The draft should certainly have been made available to biographers or academic researchers. Perhaps the publication of a scholarly edition by a university press, like the University of Chicago editions of Dostoyevsky’s notebooks, would have been a justifiable addition to American literature. An honest introduction added to the current edition would have been acceptable. But for HarperCollins to pass off a draft as a novel is a particularly specious sort of re-gifting.
Photo by Gordon Parks: The separate “colored entrance” of a department store in the center of Mobile, Ala., in the 1950s.