Chances are high that every writer likes to see his or her book singled out by the press for pre-publication notice. But on occasion the coming of a new book can be marred by too much attention from the press. Take the case of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, published on July 14 by HarperCollins. Obviously because of the author’s previous and until then only book, the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird, excitement and expectations were high when the new book was announced. To say that excitement was high is probably the grandest of understatements considering that the press went wild and the hype began building to ridiculous levels. Credit (or blame) a lot of that on the lawyers and agents involved in bringing to light a book written by Ms Lee even before her iconic To Kill a Mockingbird.
As someone who considers To Kill a Mockingbird one of the more important books in American literature, and also a person who tries to keep up with what’s new and upcoming in books, the pre-publication hype for Go Set a Watchman was overwhelming. And to that phenomenon I attach a negative result. Naturally, as was always intended by the lawyers and agents, the bombardment of press releases created a sure-fire money earning bestseller weeks before printing of the first copy. Little surprise that HarperCollins announced the book set a pre-sale record for the publishing house. It isn’t big news that controversy tends to make money and the controversy regarding this second (or first) book by Harper Lee has been bubbling. The state of Alabama launched an investigation into whether or not the 87 year-old author was being coerced into publishing her “lost” manuscript, concluding that there was no coercion. Following a stroke in 2007 Harper Lee is considered by those close to her as mentally and physically unable to participate in business transactions.
Other ingredients in the press release gumbo were articles arguing that the book was an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, rejected with the recommendation for a complete rewrite. Add to that the opinion of critics who wondered how the same person could write such a turnaround story, that the wise father in To Kill a Mockingbird is a racist in the new book. By the time July 14 rolled around I was full and tired of reading about Go Set a Watchman.
And then this past Monday while browsing in my local library, the friendly librarian mentioned that a copy of Go Set a Watchman was on the new books shelf. It’s a very small library but I was still surprised that such an eagerly awaited book had not been snatched up immediately. Still, in no hurry to read the book, my head too full of hype and conflicting reports, I told the librarian that I would wait a while. She said, “It’s a wonderful book, when you do get around to it.” We chatted about the book for a minute, me explaining that the reviews and such had discouraged me. In the end, I did bring the book home.
I finished reading it on Tuesday. After all the off-putting hullabaloo that went before, I am happy to say that Go Set a Watchman is a fine read, a worthy book and a very creditable piece of writing, thank you Harper Lee. Her prose is delightful, her sentences crystal and economic, the characters and setting well-shaped and vivid and her dialogue delightful, full of those colorful old southernisms. Something I should have known but didn't, despite several front to back readings of the Bible in different versions—The title of the book comes from the King James version, chapter 21, verse 6 of Isaiah. An excellent and very fitting title.
A few things about the book bothered me, but only slightly and not enough to take away from the whole. The ending is what I would almost call a Hollywood ending contrived to leave the reader with a sigh of happy relief. Here and there in the book’s 278 pages are scattered several long immersions into the childhood antics of Scout, Jem and Dill, passages that felt too much like deleted pages from To Kill a Mockingbird. It is important to grasp or sense from the beginning that a good bit of the young Scout from Mockingbird still holds sway in the 26 year-old Scout of Go Set a Watchman. She is by design immature and naive in many ways, a young woman who wears a thin veneer of New York sophistication, but as her uncle describes at one point, something of a bigot.
Most importantly, forget everything you've read recently about the discovery of the manuscript, the embattled lawyers and agents and the stories of long ago first drafts turned down then reappearing as a book similar to To Kill a Mockingbird set 25 years later. Put all the articles, essays and reviews aside; this book is not what they describe. To be very clear about it, Atticus Finch is not a racist in the second book, he is not a vile reverse side of the father (and man) his daughter thought he was. It’s hard to imagine how a critic from whatever illustrious publication could get that so wrong, like missing the boat completely. If anyone tells you that the character of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman is a racist, then tell them, "You'd better go back and read it again."
Wonderful book. Harper Lee has added a late in life crown to her collection.