The publication of Go Set a Watchman by acclaimed author Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic, was one of the most anticipated literary events of 2015. Does it live up to expectations?
The publication of “Go Set a Watchman” in mid-2015, was one of the most anticipated literary events of the year. It is the chronological sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which is considered an American classic.
The jury is still out on whether Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee lives up to all the hype. But it does make for fascinating reading all the same.
The book was the goodreads Choice Awards 2015 winner for fiction, and Amazon.com says it was their “most-pre-ordered book” since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released in 2007.
Some bookstores actually arranged all-night openings in order to meet the expected demand for the novel.
According to the publishers, Go Set a Watchman was actually written first, and it might have been an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Some readers have even questioned whether Harper actually wrote it.
I wondered the same thing when I read The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tam. Could such a poorly written book REALLY have been written by the same author that penned The Joy Luck Club, one of my favourite books of all time?
Writers vs. Editors
Because I have worked as both a writer (but not an author) and an editor, I think that the answer is probably yes.
The manuscript presented by a writer often bears small resemblance to the piece that eventually gets published. Editors do more than simply dot the I’s and cross the T’s.
Not only do editors correct spelling errors, straighten out faulty syntax, and make sure that usage conforms to the house style. They often also collaborate with writers, suggesting a change in point of view, a reordering of events, the addition of certain things, and the removal of others.
The editor takes a diamond in the rough and reworks it into a sparkling gem. And it is NOT always an amiable relationship. Writers and editors don’t always like each other.
Brown vs. Board of Education
Chronologically speaking, Go Set a Watchman is a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, even if it was written first as publishers now maintain.
The storyline takes place in the 1950s, shortly after the Supreme Court of the United States made its landmark decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, declaring that racially segregated public schools were “inherently unequal” and therefore in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the racially less ambiguous 1930s, and it is written from the uncritical point of view of a young girl, who sees her father as a god-like figure.
When the protagonist, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, returns home some 20 years later in Go Set a Watchman, not only is the small Southern town she grew up in undergoing seismic change, she, too, has changed.
Jean Louise now lives in New York, she has a career, her relationship with her father has evolved (he is no longer a god-like figure), and she observes events through the more critical eyes of a young woman that has seen a bit more of the world.
What is interesting is that while Jean Louise is disgusted by the racism and bigotry that she finds in the south, she is equally outraged by the Supreme Court’s ruling on segregated schools.
Just as the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law, the 10th Amendment states that the “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
So while Jean Louise firmly believes in integration, she is also a passionate advocate of States Rights. Perhaps it is this ambiguity that makes her interesting.
Cause for Celebration
It is always cause for celebration when the manuscript of a forgotten novel written by a celebrated author is discovered – especially when that author is a one-book wonder. Fans of such books are always clambering for more.
Imagine the excitement that would ensue should a manuscript for a sequel to Gone with the Wind written by Margaret Mitchell be found – instead of that pathetic attempt at a sequel, which was commissioned by her estate as the 50-year copyright on Gone with the Wind was about to expire.
Was her estate’s gravy train about to dry up?
Up until now, To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper’s only book, and it has long been considered an American classic – so much so that it is a part of the 8th grade curriculum in many school districts.
While I enjoyed reading Go Set a Watchman, and I WOULD recommend it to others, I doubt that it will enjoy the same illustrious fate as To Kill a Mockingbird.
Perhaps if the former had been subjected to the same judicious editing as the latter, it might have. But it wasn’t, so it won’t.