This is the Life: Questioning the influence behind Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’

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Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

Fans of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird have either been eagerly awaiting publication of an “earlier” novel by the author or dreading it.

After its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird became one of the most popular and best read novels of its generation. Lee, like Catcher in the Rye novelist J.D. Salinger, spent much of her life thereafter being hounded to produce more work. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for the book. The voice of Scout, a young girl telling the story of being raised by her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, has become familiar to a half-century of readers. And the movie version, starring Gregory Peck as the kind and principled southern lawyer, enhanced Lee’s reputation as having created a novel for its time. Race relations and the civil rights of black Americans were of major interest in the 1960s and To Kill a Mockingbird illustrated the horrors of bigotry and celebrated a character who defended, albeit fruitlessly, an innocent black man in a deeply prejudiced community.

Like many, my interest was piqued last year with the report that a new Harper Lee novel was about to be published. The publisher had to get court approval that Lee, now 89, was mentally sound enough to give permission for the publication of Go Set a Watchman.

That Go Set a Watchman apparently sat untouched for more than half a century was enough to raise concerns about it and whether Lee had ever really intended it to be published. Current speculation suggests that To Kill a Mockingbird evolved from the original Go Set a Watchman, with the young novelist being heavily influenced by an editor at Lippincott over a period of several years. Go Set a Watchman is a third-party narration, unlike the first-person voice in the form of Scout who, in the newly released book, is now a young adult living in New York. In it, she returns to her hometown to visit her dad. Atticus is an out-and-out bigot, not the voice of reason and justice that was so deeply celebrated in the movie (which placed a much greater emphasis on the trial).

With Lee’s original editor long dead, and the writer herself at an advanced age, the relationship between the two novels will likely never be determined to anyone’s satisfaction. But it certainly raises questions about the control that an editor has over a writer. Did Lee submit Go Set a Watchman (it’s a phrase from the Bible book of Isaiah) and then get bullied into making it a more palatable story for the time? There is no denying that an editor’s role is to work to help polish the author’s work and make it as appealing as possible to readers, which also makes it more saleable and, in the end, more profitable. But it is also possible that an easily influenced young writer might be pushed into making changes that stray far from her original intent on the assumption that to do so is part of what it takes to get published.

As I have read through reviews and reader comments in recent days it is apparent that Go Set a Watchman as it was originally written would not have been as well received had it been published circa 1960, and certainly not to the extent that To Kill a Mockingbird was. Told through a voice of innocence, Mockingbird acknowledged racism in the south, but offered a ray of hope in the character of Finch, who defended a black man in the face of prevailing public opinion. Once Gregory Peck put his own stamp on the role, Atticus Finch became a literary icon, a character who promised a brighter future for America.

By contrast, Go Set a Watchman depicts Finch as yet another bigot in a community of bigots in a region where black people were often seen more as cheap labour and less as human beings. A novel about a bigoted lawyer is, as a review in the Guardian points out, “much less likeable and school-teachable.”

Like most people of my era, I first came across To Kill a Mockingbird as an English class reading assignment. I think it is highly unlikely that we would have studied Go Set a Watchman. The former provided the basis for discussion about race issues but, with Atticus Finch at its heart, also offered hope for a generation that valued hope above all else.

While there is the chance that Go Set a Watchman could well be the result of Harper Lee once again being manipulated by the publishing world, I look forward to reading it. If nothing else, it is a rare opportunity for a reader to get a glimpse of something closer to an author’s original intent for her first novel.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.