Well before the book landed on bookstores shelves, those associated with Harper’s Lee’s first book since her Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, had carefully spread a tale of a newly discovered unpublished novel with the same vigor had they unearthed the original tablets of the Ten Commandments, when in fact the manuscript had been safely stashed away in a bank deposit box in Ms. Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, for decades. But why not declare it a discovery. Readers have waited a half century for Ms. Lee to produce another novel, the expectation being enhanced by the fact that the first is the most successful piece of American fiction ever published, with thirty-million copies in forty languages distributed in fifty countries. Since its 1960 debut, Mockingbird has never been out of print.
But Go Set a Watchman establishes why Ms. Lee never wrote a real second novel. She used up everything she had writing her first. Mockingbird leaves no dark alleys to explore or undeveloped characters to inflate into modified entities who pursue new adventures. Mockingbird was mostly autobiographical to which Ms. Lee deftly applied a patina of fiction. It is a tale of children coming of age in a small, Depression-era Southern town. They would grow up. Things would change. The charm of the childhood characters of Scout and Jem and the mysterious neighbor Boo Radley had no place else to go or grow. Perhaps that is why Mockingbird became so wildly popular—it was so wildly complete. The story simply offered little opportunities for sequels. But a prequel might be another matter, and that is where Ms. Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins, has staked its claim, unfortunately in a sleazy sort of way.
Ironically, Mockingbird arose from the flashbacks in Ms. Lee’s original manuscript for Watchman. That’s why the grandiose marketing effort for Watchman is founded on its connection to the famed Mockingbird. Just the announcement of Go Set a Watchman earlier this year, prompted a 6,600 percent uptick in the sales of Mockingbird. HarperCollins and Ms. Lee’s attorney, Tonja B. Carter, smelled gold in them thar hills, and weren’t about to let the gold dust slip between their fingers and be blown away as if into the winds of the Sierra Madre. But evidence of greed at a level of Humphrey Bogart’s and his cohorts in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” is at play in Ms. Lee’s little hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where Ms. Lee, now approaching 90, resides in an assisted living facility as her hearing and eyesight, and likely her mental acuity, fade into history.
Sales and profit records of the publishing industry are notoriously opaque, but a sixth grader with a five-dollar calculator would likely discover there aren’t enough digits on his device to total up the financial potential to be mined from Go Set a Watchman and the collective value of Ms. Lee’s reputation and fame. From a lawsuit against Ms. Lee’s former agent Samuel Pinkus, royalties earned for Mockingbird by end of December, 2009, totaled $1.7 million, apparently for the year, although the exact timeline represented by the amount is not specifically indicated. The pleadings in the same suit indicate, however, that six months later additional royalties totaled another $816,448. These figures provide a pretty good idea of Mockingbird’s value.
The story behind the new novel has been kept vague and suffers from issues of credibility, inconsistency, and hints of a nefarious plot worthy of its own book—an aging author being taken advantage of by people who she trusts and considers to be her friends.
Contrary to the artfully written hype, Watchman is not a new effort. It was born in the 1950s and gave birth to what became Mockingbird, despite the marketing blurb on the inside flap that suggests otherwise:
“Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—‘Scout’—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and the world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience.”
Those responsible for the publication of Go Set a Watchman, have gone to great lengths to establish and publicize Ms. Lee’s mental acuity and presence of mind—in legal terms, her mental capacity—to give permission to bring the long buried Watchman into the spotlight of print. “Nobody, not even Lee’s lifelong friends, seemed to have known that the manuscript existed and many were confused why it is being published now, so many decades after the author appears to have forsaken it,” is how writer Casey N. Cep described the circumstances surrounding the novel’s sudden emergence in a February New Yorker article entitled “Mystery in Monroeville.”
Ironically, the assurances that Ms. Lee has all her faculties is about the same Harper Lee who in 2007 unexplainably signed over her lucrative copyright to Mockingbird to her then “trusted” agent Samuel Pinkus, a fraud since corrected, although Pinkus has unexplainably been allowed to keep a little bit of his finger in the Harper Lee pie, perhaps because some of Ms. Lee’s friends then are still involved now, including her lawyer Tonja B. Carter.
Ms. Lee, who had a severe stroke in 2007, and has failing eyesight and hearing, is likely at best tittering on the border of mental capacity—between being capable of understanding and taking care of her own affairs and not. It should be noted that her champion of mental competency remains her lawyer Ms. Carter, and the assessment of Ms. Lee’s mental competency does not come from Ms. Lee’s own mouth or any attending physician but Ms. Carter. As The New York Times reported in February, “The woman (Ms. Lee) who has ignited such frenzied speculation remains tucked away in the Meadows, an assisted-living center, largely cut off from the prying public except for statements delivered through Ms. Carter, her lawyer, friend and gatekeeper.” Ms. Carter apparently now has her fingerprints all over the valuable copyright.
Dr. Thomas Lane Butts, another long-time friend of Ms. Lee, told New Yorker writer Cep, “This business of cutting Harper Lee off from her friends and relatives has been going on a long time.” Cep said a security guard now turns away any “unwelcomed” visitors at the Meadows. Ms. Lee’s plight has become the stuff of grocery store tabloids.
Since the miraculous discovery of the Watchman manuscript by Ms. Carter, the book’s speed into print is nothing short of astounding in the publishing world. This was achieved in part by forgoing the traditional editing and pre-press processes in the name of purity, or perhaps to avoid the potential of any claims arising out of Ms. Lee’s estate were she to die before publication.
Whether fraud is lurking in the background we will likely never fully know, but the story reeks of its potential if not its likelihood. Ms. Carter has, as they say, clammed up, and has deftly attempted to brush away any evidentiary tracks from facts, like the wrestlers in those old western movies to throw off the posse. Unfortunately, Ms. Lee’s infamous distrust of the media lends to the opacity of the facts, and likely the truth.
A long-ago Harper editor, after reviewing the Watchman manuscript, told Ms. Lee the better book lay in the flashbacks of Watchman. Ms. Lee invested another few years revising and rewriting the novel that ultimately became Mockingbird. Watchman is neither a prequel nor sequel, but rather the parent of Mockingbird, and Ms. Lee has said so.
What has irked many critics about Watchman is its characterization of the elder Atticus Finch as a racist. But having Watchman published second doesn’t change the reality of chronology. Ms. Lee redesigned and redefined Atticus into the character we first met in Mockingbird, and who came to life on screen in Gregory Peck’s masterful performance.
Evolution is a forward moving process, but it appears efforts are afoot to skew literary history in order to give Watchman the appearance of being a follow-up novel and lend credence to the idea of a changed, older Atticus. But history tells us that the Atticus we met in Mockingbird is the Atticus Ms. Lee intended for us to meet. Treating Watchman as a follow up novel, however, stirs the pot of controversy as joyfully as the trio of witches in the opening scene of Macbeth, who would likely tell you such hurly-burly sells books.
Unfortunately, that same hurly-burly libels the original Atticus Finch and may sufficiently damage his reputation to have Mockingbird lose its perennially favored place on the reading lists of millions of middle and high school students around the country. One wonders what Ms. Lee might think of that.
Both Watchman and Mockingbird come from an era when publishers tightly controlled the access to bookstore shelves. There was no such thing as self-publishing. What little of it existed was labeled as the “vanity press” and delegated to a second-class status. Watchman didn’t make it into print back when because the editors at HarperCollins probably decided it wasn’t good enough or not ready and gave Ms. Lee some incredibly valuable advice and homework. We are lucky that she took the advice and salvaged the chapters from Watchman to create Mockingbird.
Alan Gopnik, in The New Yorker, points out the clear distinction between these two novels, writing, “. . . ‘Watchman’ is a failure as a novel (if ‘Mockingbird’ did not exist, this book would never have been published, not now, as it was not then), it is still testimony to how appealing a writer Harper Lee can be.”
And that appeal is what HarperCollins now panders to enhance the perceived value of Watchman in the name of profits without consideration of what it and the controversy that surrounds it might ultimately do to the value of both books. HarperCollins is not motivated by some desire to enhance literary history but to expand and enhance its corporate balance sheet. In its “let’s make a fast buck” mentality, the publisher has denigrated the esteem of Atticus Finch. As Mr. Gopnik so eloquently puts it: “Not since Hemingway’s estate sent down seemingly completed novels from on high, long after the author’s death, has a publisher gone about so coolly exploiting a much loved name with a product of such mysterious provenance.”
But the term “exploiting” is too inadequate a term to describe what HarperCollins has done—irreparably damage the reputation of an iconic character of literature who has served as a role model for generations of young students by the way he guided his children through tumultuous events in a sleepy Southern town so many summers ago. To this reader, Atticus ignited my interest in becoming a lawyer and becoming his kind of lawyer—honorable and honest. Now I’m being told he’s a hypocrite.
In Mockingbird we encountered some pretty sleazy people from the town of Maycomb; in Watchman we can spot some pretty sleazy people from HarperCollins hiding behind the curtains of legitimacy like the wizard in Oz. In Mockingbird, Atticus gives his children air rifles for Christmas and tells them they can shoot all the blujays they want but to never kill a mockingbird. A confused Scout asks her neighbor Miss Maudie about the distinction and Miss Maudie explains that mockingbirds “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”
With Watchman, HarperCollins has shamelessly shot the mockingbird.