Thoughts On Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’


To Kill a Mockingbird, to me, has been something more than just a literary masterpiece. To me it was part of growing up. One of the most beautiful, feel-good books that held onto its charm forever. I knew that every time I picked it up, it would bring me joy.

It was just not me, millions felt the same way. So, it was obvious that another book from Harper Lee, especially a sequel to something as fantastic as To Kill a Mockingbird, would have to live up to very high expectations.

There was a reason why Harper Lee never published this novel. For years, the manuscript had been carefully tucked away in a locker, protected from prying eyes by Lee’s sister Alice. Harper Lee is said to have said herself about not publishing anything after To Kill a Mockingbird, “I have nowhere to go but down.”

Harper Lee clearly understood what fans of To Kill a Mockingbird would go through if she were to write another book and she bore the burden of that expectation, a very irrational but only human expectation I should add, quietly. She chose to spend her days in near anonymity rather than break the hearts of millions that put her and her characters on a pedestal high up in the clouds. Difficult task, but she did it nonetheless.

Sadly, after Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s gatekeeper was no more, the manuscript found its way to the publishers.

Now the reactions keep coming.

I read this on NPR today, the article titled “Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’ Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece”

As another Southern writer once said, “You can’t go home again.” In Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which takes place in the mid-1950s, a 26-year-old Scout Finch takes the train from New York City home to Maycomb, Ala., and finds the familiar world turned mighty strange.

TV and air-conditioning have changed the landscape, and beloved childhood friends like Dill and her brother Jem have vanished. Others, like Calpurnia, look at Scout, here called by her grown-up name of “Jean Louise,” as though she were, well, a white lady.

And then there’s Atticus. Now 72 and crippled by arthritis, he’s still a wry patriarch, but in one of the novel’s key scenes — set, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, in Maycomb’s courthouse — Atticus allies himself with the kind of men who several years later stood shoulder to shoulder with Bull Connor and George Wallace.

Go Set a Watchman is a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically, beginning with its fishy origin story. Allegedly, it’s a recently discovered first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m suspicious: It reads much more like a failed sequel. There are lots of dead patches in Go Set a Watchman, pages where we get long explanations of, say, the fine points of the Methodist worship service.

This is just one of the many articles that have been written ever since the first chapter was shared on the net. Articles like these break my heart. Not because they are unsound, they are far from that. But because the whole situation is so darn depressing.

We have to remember that Go Set a Watchman was the rejected first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, so Lee’s writing had not reached the stellar heights of her final manuscript. The story cannot be as great, the narration not near polished. Yet for many of us, who were swept away by Lee’s masterful work when we were wide-eyed innocents, it is hard not to feel let down.

More troubling are the characters, especially Atticus, who is shown in a much unkinder but sadly truer light. Yes, we need to grow up ourselves and like Scout, accept the world is probably not always a place where good triumphs over evil. Heck, evil has the upper hand more often than not. And people are really shades of gray. But, blinded fans of Scout and Jem and Atticus that we are, it’s difficult for us to see our heroes knocked down to the ground.

Hence the articles.

These tales of heartbreak will most likely continue. Go Set a Watchman set sales records. People who bought the book are reading it now. In the following weeks, we will see more of them writing about their experiences. Some will understand, more will be crushed.

I keep wondering why Harper Lee chose to publish it. Why now after all these years? What were the publishers thinking? Did they understand what the book would do to Harper Lee’s reputation or did they not care? What are they thinking now? Sorry? proud? Who cares?

I have chosen to not read the book. I can understand that Atticus might have been a more complex character than six-year-old Scout could comprehend, I also totally get the less skilful crafting and structure. But, after reading the new one, will I be able to see a favorite book the same way? I doubt that. Things might change because I’m only human. For that simple and selfish reason, I draw the line. I prefer to keep my good memories just that, good. And one just doesn’t go about messing with memories as great as reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

S.G. Basu is an aspiring potentate of a galaxy or two. She plots and plans with wondrous machines, cybernetic robots, time travelers and telekinetic adventurers, some of whom escape into the pages of her books. Once upon a previous life on planet Earth, S.G. Basu trained to be an engineer, and her interest in science and her love of engineering shows up time and again in her books.

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