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Book Review - Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015)

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Background

This month, our Book Club chose Harper Lee’s novel “Go Set a Watchman” for discussion.  We prepared for a long night of discussion since Harper Lee’s first book “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the all-time favorite of two of our members.  The controversy surrounding the publication of “Watchman” evoked many theories and opinions from our members.

The title “Go Set a Watchman” comes from a bible verse in Isaiah 21:6 which states “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

                                                        

Truman Capote

                                                            Truman Capote - Wikimedia

Introduction

It had long been rumored that Harper Lee’s childhood friend, Truman Capote, was the true author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  This accusation has never been proven, but it still surfaces.  Our members had thoughts on this also.

The facts have come to light that Harper Lee had written “Go Tell a Watchman” in 1957 and brought it to a publisher at J. P. Lippincott.  The novel was rejected by an editor who advised Harper Lee to rewrite the story with the characters as children in the fictional southern town of Maycomb, Alabama.  This she did, and the rewritten version became the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” which Harper Lee had initially entitled “Atticus.”

The phrase "To Kill a Mockingbird" refers to the fact that a mockingbird lives only to bring happiness to others with his song.  Thus, to kill a mockingbird is to destroy innocence.

                                     

Mockingbird

                                                          A Mockingbird - Wikimedia

Rough Draft or Sequel?

When “Go Tell a Watchman” was published, it was assumed that it was a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  In reality, “Watchman” was the rough draft of “Mockingbird,” and the original of “Watchman” only surfaced when Harper Lee’s guardian and protector, her sister Alice, a lawyer, had passed away in 2014 at the age of 103.  At that point, Harper Lee was in a nursing home, both blind and deaf, and her financial assets had been controlled by her sister Alice.  Harper Lee herself passed away in February of 2016, at the age of 89.

Was Truman Capote Really the Author?

One thought that was voiced by our Book Club was the possibility that the authorship of “Mockingbird” was ascribed to Truman Capote by many people because Truman may have advised Harper on her revisions after her draft of “Watchman” was turned down by her editor.  He may have had some input there, but it is not known for certain.  We do know, however, that Harper Lee assisted Truman Capote in the research that was required for Truman’s best-selling non-fiction book entitled “In Cold Blood.”  The fact that Harper Lee’s father was a lawyer gave her answers to legal questions that came up during Truman Capote’s inquiries with regard to his manuscript.  It is interesting that Harper Lee’s character “Dill” in “Mockingbird” is patterned after her childhood friendship with Truman.

Inconsistencies

There are many inconsistencies between “Watchman” and “Mockingbird.”  For instance, we know that Tom Roberts, the black man who was defended by Atticus Finch in “Mockingbird” when he was charged with raping a white girl, was convicted of the crime.  However, when the incident is referenced in “Watchman,” Tom Roberts is said to have been acquitted of the crime.  In addition, Jean Marie (Scout), who is Atticus’ daughter, has a long-time boyfriend, Henry Clinton, in “Watchman.”  Even though they were supposedly childhood friends, Henry Clinton was not a character in “Mockingbird.”  Also, Scout’s brother Jem, who had a significant role in her childhood had supposedly passed away of a heart condition and was never featured in “Watchman,” nor was his death ever mentioned in “Mockingbird.”  Another difference in the two stories is that Scout was the first-person narrator in "Mockingbird," and "Watchman" was told in the third person.

           

Harper Lee

                         Harper Lee received the Presidential Medal of Honor - Wikimedia

Atticus Finch - Hero or Villain?

The most controversial inconsistency revolved around the character and reputation of Atticus Finch.  Harper Lee received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2007 for her outstanding contribution to literature.  After “Mockingbird” was published, the character of Atticus Finch became a role model for many young aspiring lawyers for his integrity, compassion, justice, and morality.  In “Watchman,” his daughter Jean Louse (Scout) is disillusioned to learn that her 72-year-old father is a bigot who befriends members of the Ku Klux Klan, and regards members of the black race as inferior to whites.  All of this was contrary to what he had taught her when she was a child.

Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act

At the time when Harper Lee was revising her manuscript, the country had just undergone the landmark case known as Brown vs. Board of Education which declared in 1954 that racial segregation of schools was against the law.  This was followed ten years later by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  Those years left an indelible mark on the nation which is reflected in both of Harper Lee’s novels, which are permeated with the dichotomy confronted by her protagonists.  The abrupt change in personality in Harper Lee’s construction of Atticus Finch in “Mockingbird” seems to play to the readers’ craving for a hero in those treacherous times.

                                                  

Pulitzer Prize

                                                              Pulitzer Prize - Wikimedia

New Characters in “Watchman”

In “Watchman,” Jean Louise is given a mentor, her uncle Jack, a retired doctor, who explains to her the attitudes in Maycomb when she returns to her hometown for her annual visit after living in New York City.  This role might have been played by her brother Jem, who we learned in “Watchman” had passed away.  Also, the Finch’s housekeeper Calpurnia no longer works for Atticus, and his sister Alexandra has taken on those chores.  Jean Louise is devastated when Calpurnia snubs her on her return.

My major criticism of “Go Tell a Watchman” is the fact that there is no plot to the novel.  I waited and waited, and nothing developed.  The novel has been criticized widely because it appears to have been unedited prior to its publication.  Disjointed is a word that is used often.

Controversy upon Publication

There is also a suspicion of the timing of the publication of “Watchman.”  A female lawyer, Tonya Carter, a partner of the same Monroeville law firm to which Alice Lee was connected, claims to have come upon the manuscript while going through Harper Lee's assets.  There are inconsistencies in her story, also, since other parties claim that she knew of the draft in 2011 when it was uncovered in a safe deposit box.  Tonya Carter arranged to have the novel published three months after the death of Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s sister and protector, in 2014.

                                           

Gregory Peck

                                             Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch - Wikimedia

"Go Set A Watchman" has been the fastest selling book in the history of publisher HarperCollins, with more than 1.1 million copies sold in North America in the first week.  It remains to be seen if it will ever outsell the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” which has sold more than 30 million copies.

It was a delightful evening at Book Club this month.  Our discussion lasted much longer through the night than any other meeting that we have had.

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Go Set a Watchman: A Novel
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Bibliography

  1. Joe Nocera "The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud." The New York Times. 24/07/2015. 1/04/2016 <Web >
  2. David L. Ulin "Harper Lee's 'Go Set a Watchman' reveals a darker side of Maycomb." Los Angeles Times. 11/07/2015. 1/04/2016 <Web >

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