My One and Only Thought on Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman"

I have not read the book "Go Set a Watchman" nor will I likely.  But it seems like a lot of folks are disappointed that the characters and themes in this book are different from Lee's later "To Kill a Mockingbird."  Which causes me to ask a question that surprisingly has not been asked in anything I have read, which is:  "Maybe Harper Lee didn't publish the novel for a reason."  I mean, Lee had decades in which to do so and apparently chose not to.  Should we really be surprised that a novel does not represent a writer in the way we expected when the writer themselves chose not to sanction the work by trying to publish it?

Which reminds me of this unrelated bit in a discussion of a recently re-published early work by Ayn Rand

This spectacular claim—that Ayn Rand’s impassioned idealism is a species of murderous fanaticism—comes a bit out of the blue, but Heller hangs it on a rather selective discussion of notes Ayn Rand made in her journals in 1928 about a murderer named William Hickman. Hickman’s defiance after his capture, and the reaction against him—a reaction she saw as being less about the evil of his crime than about his refusal to conform to social convention—caught her attention and caused her to work on a fictionalized version called The Little Street, a project she worked on for a while and then dropped.

Hickman has been long forgotten everywhere else, but he will live forever in the minds of Ayn Rand’s detractors, because they can now cite her notes on his case as proof that she was an admirer of serial killers and probably a psychopath herself, which means that they can now safely ignore every argument she ever made. Isn’t that convenient?

In fact, this is only proof that writers should burn their notes before they die, because inevitably some idiot is going to come along and use your half-though-out ramblings as proof of what you really believed, in contradiction to the thousands of pages of meticulously edited work that you actually published.

Update:  This is a really good article sent to me by a reader about the editorial process that led from "Go Set a Watchman" to "To Kill a Mockingbird" which essentially calls them draft 1.0 and draft 2.0 of the same, yet very different, novel.

Since Watchman was written before Mockingbird (even though the time period in the book is later), Harper Lee did not “change” Atticus. The characterization in Watchmanwas the original. It was her first shot. It was Atticus 1.0.

The real story, if you ask me, is that Harper Lee rethought, reconceived, and reconfigured the Atticus of Watchman into the icon of honorableness that he became in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Think of that for a minute from a writer’s point of view. How hard is that to do? I can think of few things that are harder, not just from a practical point of view (the work, the recasting, the reimagining) but from a psychological perspective. How do you manage your emotions? How do you submerge your ego? How do you let go of expectations?

Somehow Harper Lee, God bless her, was able to do all that.

She set aside the manuscript of Watchman (the product of more than two years’ labor) when her editor Tay Hohoff declared it not ready for prime time—and went back to the drawing board.

I would give a lot of money to see Ms. Hohoff’s notes, or the correspondence between her and Ms. Lee, or to listen to a tape of their conversations over the two-plus years it took Ms. Lee to revamp the original story and turn it into To Kill A Mockingbird.

This much we know. Ms. Hohoff advised Ms. Lee to re-set the world of Watchman twenty years earlier. Take the character of Scout from a grown woman and wind her back to a little girl. Tell us the story, not through the eyes of a bitterly disillusioned daughter who had left Maycomb, Alabama and moved to New York City, but from the perspective of an innocent but whip-smart six- to nine-year-old tomboy, still at home, still in awe of her father.

Imagine doing that yourself. Could you? I’m not sure I could.

At the risk of summarizing a manuscript I have not read, it sounds like she shifted the book from a dreary story of what the South was, to a more optimistic story of what it was but also what it could be.

  • Ann_In_Illinois

    The story that has been given is that this was thought to be lost for a long time, and then someone (I think someone related to the publisher that she submitted it to long ago) just found a copy. I can't tell if you doubt that story or are simply unaware of it.

    Your broader point is good, though - the publisher wasn't too excited about this book at the time and suggested a new book on Scout (or was it on Jem?) as a child.

  • SamWah

    Robert A. Heinlein wrote a rather poor book titled "For Us, The Living", which was not published until well after his death. It wasn't a good book, and he knew that, but it did contain a lot of bits that showed up in books he wrote later. Beyond that, a lot of people seem to confuse stories with "what the author believes", similar to confusing actors with the characters they play.

  • Jody Neel

    The reports of Harper Lee's death have been greatly exaggerated...

  • Dan Wendlick

    I think the primary reason for publishing, other than the money, was to answer the critics who claim that she did not actually write "Mockingbird". A lot of suspicions have been raised based on the fact that she seemed to have written this one, perfect novel, then never again published anything of consequence. The conspiracy theory is that it was either a heavy edit or light rewrite of a manuscript by either Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote, both known to have been social and professional colleagues.

  • ErikTheRed

    Of course, the other possibility is that Harper Lee is simply the greatest literary troll in history.

  • Herb Borkland

    ""How do you manage your emotions? How do you submerge your ego? How do you let go of expectations?"

    This is what Keats meant, in a famous letter, when he referred to "negative capability" which an artist must possess. The "positive capability" is to have something to say and to write it well. The "negative capability" is the ability to take a passage that, last night when you wrote it, made you weep with its brilliance, and then, in the cold light of next morning, re-read it and think: "Nah. I can improve on this."