Publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has set off controversy on two levels. For writers, the book may represent the industry at its most cynical: publishing an inferior book by a cherished author who may no longer be competent to decide her own literary legacy. Articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker have raised issues about possible manipulation, as well as about the book’s provenance. For readers, the book presents the unsettling picture that Atticus may be fundamentally racist. As writers and readers, do we greet Watchman with depressing cynicism, or is there room for hope?
Whether or not we like to hear them, Watchman tells us a few things about the business of writing. Lee is said to have written Watchman first, even though it’s set about 20 years later. An editor guided Lee to write a new book based on her flashbacks, which turned out to be excellent advice. To Kill a Mockingbird is the far stronger book. It was probably also a better fit for the market at that time. In other words, the editor knew what she was doing when she didn’t publish the original book. Lee’s first instincts were not without validity: her story of the disappointment of a young Southern woman in the racism of her otherwise honorable father is complex and worth telling (with some revision). But not every story worth telling is going to be supported to market. And the kind of editorial help which Lee received as an unpublished writer rarely happens anymore. Publication of Watchman also reveals that a weak book will get published if it can be turned into a publishing event. Publishing is less about art than it is about business. That’s the reality check.
At the same time, Watchman gives writers some grounds for hope. First, that they can improve – that rejection doesn’t mean they should give up. Lee went back to work and wrote an amazingly stronger book, with better drawn characters, greater tension, more compelling action, smarter dialogue and bigger heart. That editor performed a huge service in sending Lee back to her desk. But I’d like to think that Lee would have improved even without that intervention. Like many writers, she leaves clues for herself on the page – my second basis for hope. The flashback scenes in Watchman are indeed the most vivid, and in time I believe Lee would have recognized that. She has Jean Louise/Scout ask herself: “What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present?” (p. 225) Writers should pay heed to the messages left by themselves. Finally, writers often start with something they need to puzzle out from their own lives, but art benefits from distance and detachment. To me, Watchman reads like an autobiographical story. Truman Capote once asserted with respect to Lee’s depiction of Boo Radley in Mockingbird, that “Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true.” Watchman includes long tracks of lecture – the kind of thing real people may have to learn from, but which is boring for readers. Mockingbird is more consciously crafted. Scout learns as a result of acute observation and the events of the story, and we as readers grow in tandem with her.
The building of Scout’s conscience is where the two books come together. She, not Atticus, becomes the watchman, and she’s set on his conscience. As she herself claims, somehow she got raised right. Atticus may disappoint us in Watchman, but like other children who end up seeing more clearly than their parents, Jean Louise gives us hope. Watchman is a flawed book, especially in its ending that at times seems to undermine her stand against prejudice, and I think a younger Lee chose not to publish it on purpose. But the world we have is the world we have. My advice is to write your own story as well as you possibly can, to keep learning from others as well as from yourself, and not to give up on publishing, even as tough as it is. What if Harper Lee had given up, instead of trying harder with Mockingbird? We would all be less.