The Heartbreak of ‘Watchman’

Josie Leavitt - July 14, 2015

Today is the day many in the book world have been waiting for: the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The book has been long-awaited since it was announced with much discussion about whether or not Harper Lee was of sound mind to actually approve the release. These rumors were quickly quashed by her legal team, but folks are still scratching their heads a little at the release of what is a draft of the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird. Obviously, it’s great fun to have another book by Harper Lee to read, but was it the right thing to do? I guess that doesn’t really matter now. The book is here and opinions are flying.
Many customers came in yesterday, after reading Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times, where she revealed that Atticus Finch became a racist at the end of his life, and were shocked and angry that Watchman has destroyed a long-loved literary friend. Some people muttered about naming their sons Atticus and shook their heads. Others have vowed not to read it because they don’t want their image of Atticus forever ruined. 

People were stopping me at the dog park, the coffee shop, and even the supermarket to discuss what they’ve heard about the book. Every single person I spoke to was mad and disheartened. Some were just flat-out crushed. While no one has read the book yet, save for reviewers, people had strong opinions and they were all negative. I spent my entire time at the market having a heated talk with John, who followed me from aisle to aisle practically despairing. He was incensed that Atticus, one of his childhood heroes, had become so tainted. He put it succinctly, “My faith is shaken in people that this can happen.”
One thing that is becoming clear to me is that To Kill a Mockingbird  means so much to readers that feelings are running deep to the point of almost being visceral. For many adults Mockingbird is sacred and now with the leaked spoilers about the book, people do not know how to feel. One thing is clear: this book will generate a lot of discussion this summer as more and more people read it.
So, dear readers, what are your thoughts on what you’ve heard (or maybe even now read) about Go Set a Watchman?

6 thoughts on “The Heartbreak of ‘Watchman’

  1. Rachel

    I haven’t read the book yet, but from reviews, it sounds like To Set a Watchman might be best understood as an Alternate Reality or Alternate Universe of To Kill a Mockingbird. These are events and character developments that could have happened in a universe just one step to the side of the original. As all of us readers know, this is a common technique in fiction and one that often changes the reader’s view of the original characters: think of the portrayal of Dorothy (of the Wizard of Oz) in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, of Jane Eyre in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or of Guinevere (from early Welsh tales) in the later tales inspired by Eleanor of Aquitaine. The main difference in the case of To Set a Watchman seems to be that it is the same author writing an alternate reality of their own work. Yet many authors love to consider and sometimes even write themes and variations on their own stories: what if it had happened this way? What if Atticus weren’t such a good guy; how would that have affected the people around him? Each theme and variation stands on its own as a possible iteration of that universe. As for the readers, we’re stuck with a more complex view of our favorite literary heroes – a whole host of possibilities for them, some darker than others – than we would be if there were simply a single, canonical text.

    1. Laura H

      I absolutely agree. I am reading Go Set a Watchman as an alternate reality book-definitely not a sequel.

  2. Pam Warren

    It’s a book! TKAM cannot be topped, so my expectations aren’t in that direction. I am interested in this text as it is Lee’s. She did try to publish it, and it was sent back, hence TKAM. I can’t wait to hear Scout again. As far as family and lawyers – none of us can determine what really happened. If you read one source, it says one thing and others say different. I will read because I will always want to make my own judgements about a text – just like I did with TKAM (also not a perfect text, but a beautiful story). Also, people are talking about books. For a book lover, that is a great thing! Lastly, if racism, Jim Crow laws, and bias become part of the conversation, then it will have served a greater purpose.

  3. Mike

    I loved TKAM because of the characters, the story, and Harper Lee’s style of writing. I will read Watchman because of the author and my curiosity about this version. Then I will make my own determination as to like dislike or something in between. Critics are just sharing their opinions, I like to make my own opinion.

  4. Karen Erickson

    If anything, Go Set a Watchman is interesting from the standpoint of the writing-editing-mentoring process, how a rough ms received by an editor then had a vast influence on the book we came to know as To Kill a Mockingbird. Some feel that 1957, when Lee originally dropped off this ms to her editor, was the wrong time to take on issues of racism, since the U S was in the midst of civil rights struggles.
    The fact that Lee’s editor backed off from that original story has another cause besides for the perhaps bad timing of Watchman during civil rights: the ms as she received it was not really a novel but a series of vignettes. So she assigned Lee the task of telling a more complete story by starting it from the Scout as a child POV. Obviously, without this editor (Tay), the masterpiece TKAM would never have been written. Again, the power of a good editor cannot be over-emphasized.
    Perhaps losing the Atticus we all know and love will be a small price compared to the gain in more truthful dialogues about racism in America.


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