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‘Go Set a Watchman’ Is Not the Sequel We Were Looking For

The only thing more disturbing than an unfamiliar Atticus Finch is the dubious story behind the decision to publish Harper Lee’s “found” work.

Here’s a fun game. Head over to Twitter and do a search for “Go Set a Watchman Star Wars.” In fact, don’t bother: I’ve done it for you.

You wouldn’t expect all that many hits for those search terms, unless Harper Lee’s shady and unscrupulous caregivers have negotiated the world’s least-predictable crossover. Instead, you’re bound to see a whole lot of tweets like these:

Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is the literary equivalent to the Star Wars Prequels. #childhoodruined

— Katie Maree (@KatieMaree_88) July 14, 2015

Go Set a Watchman is basically a Star Wars sequel in which Scout discovers her dad is Darth Vader.

— Douglas Hunter (@DWHauthor) July 14, 2015

To everyone upset about "Go Set A Watchman," now you know how the rest of us felt about Star Wars I-III.

— Becca (@BeccaBits) July 14, 2015

Go Set a Watchman, which was released today by HarperCollins, is the ostensible sequel to Harper Lee's classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. I say "ostensible" because Watchmen was apparently written in the 1950s before Mockingbird, probably isn't actually a sequel, and was only recently "discovered" by Lee's attorney. The series of events that led to its publishing have been, well... opaque. The whole thing reeks of exploitation, as the 89-year-old Lee had previously maintained she would never publish another work. Some reports have her entirely senile; others note that she's nearly deaf and blind following a 2007 stroke. If you're telling me the decision to move forward with Go Set a Watchman's publishing was made of her wholly conscious volition, well then I'm Boo Freaking Radley.

But perhaps the most troubling thing about Watchman isn't the story behind the story — it's the novel itself. I'll note that I haven't yet read the book (no advance copy for me). Neither has Deadspin's Albert Burneko, who nonetheless offers a thoughtful and articulate analysis of the stunning press Watchman has been receiving. Remember all that stuff above about Atticus Finch being Darth Vader? Well, the apparent consensus from early reviewers is that the beloved hero of Mockingbird is portrayed a whole lot differently in Watchman:

"If the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman is a bigot, if he finds — or found, or explored the possibility of finding — common ground with the murdering terrorists against whom he defended Tom Robinson, this will implicitly repudiate To Kill a Mockingbird. It will suggest that the narrator of that book was wrong, or clueless; that Atticus’s actions in that book grew from mere professional ethics and not a marrow-deep belief in fairness and universal human dignity; that his admonitions to his children about empathizing with others and resisting the shallowest judgments were empty bullshit. It will imply that Atticus’s own professed belief that all men are created equal extended only as far as the courthouse door; that discharging his duty to unjust laws was enough for him; that he was a hypocrite and a moral dwarf. It will imply that he despised black people even while entrusting the daily care of his children and home to one of them. It will imply that Atticus is an admirable defense lawyer and a despicable human being."


Burneko posits that Watchman is being "contemptibly" presented as a sequel when it's almost certainly not. In fact, it's likely no more than a rejected early draft of Mockingbird:

"Go Set a Watchman is an early iteration of what eventually became Mockingbird. An editor rejected it because it didn’t work, and Mockingbird is what resulted from the effort to fix what was wrong with it. Go Set a Watchman, properly speaking, is the stuff of a dusty variorum edition, or an outtake reel."

I recommend reading Burneko's full piece (linked again here) on why you don't have to read the book — and maybe shouldn't. He makes a pretty compelling (though perhaps not wholly convincing) argument on why the character Atticus Finch belongs to readers and society, not to Lee or her lawyer. I think the problems with Go Set a Watchman are deeper than that. If it's true that this manuscript is, as Burneko puts it, "an outtake reel," then the Atticus Finch within may very well not be Lee's either. Authors create characters in pencil before they incarnate them in ink. If the characters in Watchman are the half-erased manifestations of a novel-in-progress, then the way it is being marketed is a major disservice to her artistic vision.

For fans who elect to read the book knowing full well their established notions will be shattered, it's important to remember that what you're reading was probably never intended to be released, and definitely not shamelessly marketed as Mockingbird's successor. It being an early iteration, Watchman may not even exist in the same canonical universe as the Mockingbird that hit the shelves in 1960, and certainly not the world of the 1962 film.

And if all that doesn't soothe you, you can at least be glad Lee doesn't attribute anything to midi-chlorians

Photo credit: Rob Stothard / Stringer

Follow the author at @Monteneggroll


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