Tomorrow is the official release day of Harper Lee’s “sequel” to To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman. After 55 years of Lee insisting that she would never publish another novel, the manuscript of Go Set A Watchman was apparently discovered in a safe deposit box, and the now 89-year-old Lee consented to its publication.
The big question, really, is whether people should read it.
It seems strange to frame reading a globally published novel as a moral issue. But this isn’t about the contents of the book, but about the circumstances of its publication. Harper Lee is famous for writing To Kill A Mockingbird and never publishing another book. She wrote Go Set A Watchman before she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird — it was the initial manuscript she submitted, before various rounds of edits led her editor to suggest that she write the book about Scout’s childhood instead. Harper Lee herself certainly did not forget about the manuscript (at least before her memory started failing), and there were probably records of it at the publishing house too, considering what an important cultural book To Kill A Mockingbird became.
And “suspicious” isn’t a strong enough word to describe the fact that Lee finally decided to allow its publication, eight years after a stroke that left her nearly blind and deaf, a year after the death of her sister, who was also her lawyer and biggest advocate, with Lee not speaking at all about the new book except through her lawyer or other representatives, and with her reportedly having major problems with her memory. The State of Alabama investigated the possibility of elder abuse and ruled that she was “in full possession of her mental faculties,” but it’s one thing to say she’s happy at the home where she lives, and another to say that she wasn’t pressured into agreeing to the publication of a manuscript that she had never wanted published before the death of her protective sister — especially as those doing the investigation were “not medically trained,” couldn’t perform mental capacity tests and were mostly used to conducting investigations into financial fraud.
The biggest problem, of course, is Lee’s famous hate of publicity and refusal to be in the public eye. She famously doesn’t give interviews, so of course she wouldn’t be interviewed about the new book’s discovery or release. She doesn’t like people discussing her personal life, so of course her agent and lawyer would respect that too. Except that “respect” here could just as easily be used to prevent people from investigating the case too deeply — after all, it’s disrespectful of Lee to ask too many questions about her feelings on the book.
And let’s look at Lee’s recent legal history. In 2007, Lee was convinced to sign over the copyright of To Kill A Mockingbird to a company run by Lee’s literary agent, and her new lawyer Tonja Carter notarized the agreement in 2011. Lee later sued the company to reacquire the rights in 2013, saying she had been “duped.” In 2012, Carter became her legal stand-in for when Lee is unable to make decisions for herself. Carter reportedly restricted the number of people who could visit Lee at her nursing home, writing to several of Lee’s once friends to inform them they were no longer welcome. And now, that same lawyer has discovered the manuscript to Go Set a Watchman and got Lee’s permission to publish it.
So, the publication of Go Set a Watchman is suspicious to say the least. But why does that matter?
I think Go Set A Watchman will provide a fascinating look into the way that novels develop as they’re written, and on the backstory of how an American classic was formed. It may provide people with greater insight into Lee’s characters — or, conversely, it may contradict the characters as Lee eventually saw them. People have already gone into a frenzy discussing the fact that Atticus Finch is shown to be deeply racist in the new novel, and the question of whether this is adding complexity to the character, or whether this is an initial attempt at characterization that Lee moved away from.
And this is one of the major reasons why the publication of Go Set A Watchman troubles me. Forevermore, the contents of that novel will color people’s thoughts about and reactions to To Kill A Mockingbird. Mockingbird will be interpreted through the lens that Go Set A Watchman provides. Many will treat the book as a sequel that provides new “canon” facts about these characters, rather than an initial work-in-progress that Lee set aside in favor of To Kill A Mockingbird. If Harper Lee spent fifty-five years knowing that this manuscript existed without taking any steps toward preparing it as a potential sequel, then it seems unlikely that she wanted it to be published as such.
It certainly seems disrespectful to have such a huge media circus around the book’s publication, including now reports on the “backlash” about Atticus’s characterization, when Harper Lee famously detests publicity. It seems hard to believe reports that she is “excited” for the book to be out in the world, when she hated all the attention that To Kill A Mockingbird brought and became a media recluse.
And let’s not forget that this is an early effort at her debut. People are already commenting on how the prose isn’t as strong as the prose in To Kill A Mockingbird, but why would it be? The book was a first attempt, and it wasn’t edited to the point that it was ready for publication, because it was set aside in favor of a new novel focussing on Scout’s childhood instead. Go Set A Watchman should be a piece of purely scholarly interest, like an author’s juvenilia or handwritten early drafts or their letters gathered for publication after their death. Yet it is being published as though it were a full novel in its own right, intended to follow on from To Kill A Mockingbird and exist separately from it. And that, regardless of the novel’s background, is troubling because of the way it will affect perceptions of Lee and her works.
As Harper Lee reportedly once stated, Mockingbird said what she wanted to say, and she was not going to say it again. So if Go Set A Watchman changes or even contradicts that message, is that really something she wanted adding to her literary legacy? And if we read it and discuss it, and it turns out that she didn’t truly consent to it being published, are we complicit in that manipulation?