By Erin Keating
The news that Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman would be released on July 14, in honor of To Kill a Mockingbird’s 55th anniversary, started worldwide anticipation. The book’s publisher, HarperCollins, slowly released news and the first chapter to garner public interest – which worked since it broke records on the number of pre-orders Amazon received. To build suspense in the digital age, HarperCollins cast Reese Witherspoon to read the audiobook. However, upon its release, it sparked a great literary controversy.
The first suspicion expressed by literary critics was that the book was conveniently published after the death of Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, who had been the manager of her estate. Many critics suspect that Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, did not “discover” the manuscript as she had claimed. It is easier to believe that she saw the opportunity for major monetary gains by publishing the prequel to one of America’s most beloved novels, without taking much consideration for Harper Lee herself. Lee’s only publication was To Kill a Mockingbird, which has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide since its publication in July, 1960, and the publication of another novel would essentially be guaranteed immediate success – which it did. While we may never know whether Carter took advantage of her client’s legacy now that Lee is visually and hearing impaired due to a stroke, that doesn’t change the disappointing lack of subtlety that we see in Go Set a Watchman.
Go Set a Watchman was originally written before To Kill a Mockingbird and features Scout, now a grown woman going by her real name Jean-Louise, returning to Maycomb, Alabama for a brief vacation from her home in New York City. However, when Lee submitted the manuscript to her editor, she was encouraged to explore the flashbacks seen in Watchman and develop them into a story about Scout’s childhood. Obviously, Lee chose to focus on the events surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson that had a clear impact on Scout’s development and perception of her father. This is where the second controversy comes in.
Atticus Finch, who is depicted as a saintly figure and the epitome of open-mindedness in Mockingbird, is fighting against desegregation laws that were just imposed on the South in Watchman. There is something extremely disconcerting about listening to Atticus Finch argue about the importance of segregation in maintaining the South’s tradition of state’s rights. While Jean-Louise’s arguments for equality would have been controversial in 1955 when the manuscript was submitted to Lee’s editor, Atticus’s intolerance makes it controversial now. Watchman does not focus on the importance of equality, it encourages readers to “set a watchman” on the world and make decisions for themselves based on their own conscience. This encouragement is blunt, given through long pedantic speeches that are too abstract to sound like realistic dialogue. The book reads exactly like what it is: the unpolished draft of a great American author.
That being said, Watchman, though rough around the edges, is very poignant considering the period of racial tension that the U.S. is currently experiencing. In a time when racial violence seems to be covered constantly in various news stories, Watchman gives us a way to confront and think about the issues we are experiencing today and shows us that perhaps we haven’t come as far from 1955 as we thought.