There has been, and will continue to be, a lot written about the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman by HarperCollins over the months since the announcement of its discovery. There are many questions remaining over how and when it was discovered, and over the decision to publish it, but right now the focus is on the book itself.
I’ve read a few reviews and the comments under them, and if there’s a theme that jumps out at me, it’s confusion around how Lee could have turned Atticus Finch from being a fair, just, upstanding man to an old racist in this book set 20 years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird. The Finch we know is defined by his commitment to racial equality and justice, and yet here he is in Watchman, an almost completely different character.
I have seen people trying to rationalise this away, talking about how people change over 20 years, or how Scout was a child in Mockingbird but an adult in Watchman and thus seeing things without the rose-tinted glasses of childhood innocence. But these attempts to impose coherence are missing a vital piece of context:
Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird.
Go Set A Watchman is not even Harper Lee’s “second book”.
Go Set a Watchman is the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, a draft she extensively revised and changed. We cannot look at Watchman as any kind of continuation of Mockingbird, we cannot expect the two books to share a coherent world view or think of the characters as the same people who’ve ‘changed’ between books, because Watchman is not a deliberately planned out sequel to Mockingbird at all. It is not set in the same universe, but an earlier, related one.
Watchman is like an ancestor of Mockingbird, sharing much of its genetic material with the bestseller – you can see examples of passages that Lee decided were good enough to make it into the new draft in this Quartz analysis. But Watchman is no more a sequel than my father is my son.
HarperCollins very carefully does not use the word “sequel” in it’s publicity. As Neil Gaiman said on Twitter:
But the HarperCollins press release muddies the waters hugely about what this book is, calling it “a newly discovered novel”, and implying – but not saying – that it’s an entirely new book and a sequel:
“My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout” – quote from Harper Lee.
“Go Set a Watchman is set during the mid-1950s and features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later.”
“I, along with millions of others around the world, always wished that Harper Lee had written another book.” – quote from Michael Morrison, President and Publisher of HarperCollins US General Books Group and Canada.
“Reading in many ways like a sequel to Harper Lee’s classic novel…” – quote from onathan Burnham, Senior Vice President and Publisher, Harper.
One would be forgiven for believing that this was a different novel, a sequel, something that Harper Lee had worked on as a separate enterprise to Mockingbird. But it isn’t. To repeat: Watchman is the first draft of Mockingbird.
This first draft was written through 1956-57, after Lee was given the financial support to allow her to take a year off to write. The first 49 pages were given to agent Annie Laurie Williams on 14 January 1957, and she had the complete draft by 27 February 1957.
Williams and her husband and business partner Maurice Crain thought that Lee’s draft was interesting but needed work. Crain worked with Lee to revise the draft, and it was sent to publishers J.B. Lippincott. They liked it, but again felt it needed further revisions. From the Washington Post, we hear from Tay Hohoff, “eventual editor of the book”:
“First of all, the element in the original manuscript which was unmistakable: it was alive, the characters stood on their own two feet, they were three-dimensional,” Hohoff wrote. “And the spark of the true writer flashed in every line. Though Miss Lee had then never published even an essay or a short story, this was clearly not the work of an amateur.”
That said, noted Hohoff, who died in 1974, the effort was very, very flawed.
“The manuscript we saw was more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel. The editorial call to duty was plain. She needed, at last, professional help in organizing her material and developing a sound plot structure.”
Lippincott did not offer to buy the manuscript. The editors sent Lee home to make revisions. They hoped she might come back.
It took two years of hard work revising the book closely with Hohoff for Lee to produce Mockingbird. Lippincott accepted the manuscript on 10 November 1959.
Harper Lee wrote no further novels. In fact, over the decades since Mockingbird was published, Lee chose not to rework into a sequel the bits of the first draft that didn’t make it into the final version, despite the fact that there would have been a huge appetite for it. It might be tempting to say that this was because the first draft was lost, but it certainly wasn’t lost in 1959 and had she wanted to write a sequel, she easily could have in subsequent years. Lee cannot have been ignorant of the commercial opportunity afforded by her success, but she decided that she preferred her privacy to the lunacy that would undoubtedly result from publishing a second book.
Furthermore, as far as I am aware, Lee has not revised Watchman. There have been some questions as to her cognitive capabilities, and the NY Times wrote:
Ms. Lee — known to many as Nelle, her legal first name — had a stroke in 2007 and has severe hearing and vision problems. But friends who visit her regularly say she can communicate well and hold lengthy conversations if visitors yell in her ear or write questions down for her to read under a special machine.
It does not seem likely, therefore, that she was able to read the manuscript and give it the kind of hard edit that every single first draft in the world needs in order to turn it into a viable novel, let alone a sequel to Mockingbird. If she had, at some point, decided to revise what was left of Watchman into a true sequel, we could reasonably have expected it to be as different from that first draft as Mockingbird is, not least because she would have taken into account all those changes she made back in the late 1950s.
Watchman has some value as a literary artefact, as a window into Lee’s early thinking behind what eventually became Mockingbird, and as a testament to her tenacious reworking of her first draft. But it is unfair to Lee to publish it as if it were a finished novel, or to in any way represent it as her second novel or as a sequel.