Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: First Draft Frenzy

Today is the day many readers and historians have been looking forward to for months: The publication of Harper Lee’s sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman. The hype has been so overwhelming that advanced sales have approached Harry Potter-like levels.

Watchman has been a controversial project since it was announced. Mockingbird was famously Lee’s only book, although the world waited anxiously for years for her to produce another. Now 89 and living in an assisted living home in Alabama, Lee was in the news for the first time in several years in 2013 when she sued her agent for duping her into signing over the copyright to Mockingbird. A year later, it was announced that Watchman had been found in a safe deposit box and would be published. Then controversy arose over whether Lee really wanted this book – which was not a true sequel to Mockingbird, but a first draft of the story – to be published. Some say she was feeble in her old age and had been duped; other reports said she was eager for publication and angry about the earlier reports that she did not want it published.

Although Watchman has been referred to as a sequel to Mockingbird because the characters are older, it is not a true sequel. It was the first draft of Mockingbird, and Lee spent years – with the help of a strong editor, Tay Hohoff , who was intrigued by the glimpses of Jean Louise’s childhood and told Lee to set her novel during that time period – revising the novel from Watchman to Mockingbird.

A few days before Watchman’s official publication, the New York Times broke embargo rules and published a story saying that Watchman featured an old, bitter, racist Atticus Finch, who attended KKK meetings and spoke in favor of segregation. America was stunned at the clay feet of this literary hero. Hearts were broken. Many tried to make sense of the change. Al Sharpton said, “Finch reflects the reality of finding out that a lot of those we thought were on our side harbored some personal different feelings.” Others talked about how it’s not uncommon for people who are liberal in their youth to become more conservative as they grow older.

Everyone seems to be missing the point: THIS IS A FIRST DRAFT.

After Mockingbird, Atticus did not become a bitter, racist old man. There is no after Mockingbird. Watchman is not a sequel to Mockingbird. Nothing in Watchman is canon. Mockingbird is canon. Watchman is a discarded first draft.

Assuming the stories are true about Lee being excited for the first draft’s publication, they’re not surprising. Most writers have a soft spot for the first finished draft of a novel. Who knows how many years she labored over it before turning it to Hohoff? But I am shocked at how publications, public figures and fans are reacting, with hearts broken over Atticus’ feet of clay. Over years, Lee rewrote and rewrote this manuscript to develop Atticus into the hero he became. And he is still that hero. Watchman is nothing more than an early glimpse at the very beginnings of that character. A curiosity, definitely, but nowhere near the final word on what this man became.

A sequel to Mockingbird can still be written in the minds of its fans, who might see Finch becoming an advisor to LBJ on civil rights laws as Jean Louis works as a young federal attorney in Washington D.C.
To sum, I quote the USA Today review, which refuses to give into the hysteria: If you think of Watchman as a young writer's laboratory, however, it provides valuable insight into the generous, complex mind of one of America's most important authors.

And for this reason, and this reason alone, I think Watchman deserved to be published. But not as a sequel to Mockingbird, but as an early draft – a lesson for writers to compare and contrast the early and later drafts of one of American’s literary masterpieces. So as a writer eager to learn, I will be reading it. But as a fan of Mockingbird, I won't consider its plot points or characterizations to have any lasting meaning.

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