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To Kill a Masterpiece: Harper Lee’s Undoing

Introduction and Background

Have you ever waited months for a new movie, mini-series on television like the upcoming final season of “Downton Abbey,” or a highly anticipated and hyped book?  Then when it arrives, you are horribly disappointed? That was my Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman Goes On Saleexperience with Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” (GSAW). It was supposed to be “a landmark new novel,” a sequel to the beloved and celebrated “To Kill a Mockingbird” (TKAM). “After I read it, I honestly wondered why Ms. Lee would have granted permission for the printing of a book so much inferior to her Pulitzer Prize winner of 1960. Why would she want to undermine her literary legacy?

After such a letdown, I went back and read all the articles that I could find about this long “lost novel.” The controversies and questions surrounding “the who, what, where, when, and how” led me to write my last article for primewomen.com on September 17, 2015. Along the way, I also read many book reviews. Almost all of them agreed that this 58-year-old manuscript should not have seen the light of day. We will address that after I explain the title, introduce the time, setting and major characters of GSAW as well as give you the major plot points.

The Title

“Go Set a Watchman” is a phrase familiar to Bible scholars and frequent readers of the Old Testament. It comes from the Book of Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees.”

The word watchman here is interpreted to mean an individual’s conscience, and this element of scripture is said to be urging everyone to keep alert to their surroundings for opportunities to please God and avoid sin.

In Lee’s GSAW, the protagonist Jean Louise Finch (JLF) sees her father, Atticus, as their hometown, Maycomb’s, “watchman” of morals, of all that is lawful and decent. He has always played the same role for her.

The Time, Setting and Cast of Characters

GSAW is set 20 years after the action of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the same location of Maycomb.  Jean Louise or “Scout” as we knew her in TKAM is now 26 years old, living and working in N.Y.C. In these post-World War II 1950’s, there is much social and economic upheaval afoot.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has become active and very demanding of equal rights for African Americans in all areas of life including: education, employment, housing, and other social venues.

The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision that says that state laws providing separate but equal public school for black and white students were unconstitutional. The ruling makes many nervous, but in GSAW, the citizens of Maycomb are very fearful and resentful of any mandated changes from the federal government.

Importantly for the story, Southerners, as is explained at length by Atticus’s brother Jim, are still bitter over what they consider to be the real causes of the Civil War. He says it was the North’s greed for the oppressive tariffs on Southern cotton and indigo crops and not abolition that started that hateful conflict. Plus some vague notion of the North not respecting the South’s sacred separateness and distinct code of honor somehow guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which caused the Confederates to take up arms.

Jim also opines that people below the Mason-Dixon line have never recovered from the draconian rules of Reconstruction, and that enforced integration is not going over well because no one likes being told what to do by outsiders.

The Major Characters:

Jean Louise Finch (JLF) – very familiar to readers of “To Kill a Mockingbird” as “Scout” is the daughter of Atticus and the sister of Jeremy or “Jem.”

Atticus Finch – father of Jean Louise and Jeremy, brother to Jim – a physician, and to Alexandra – a homemaker. Atticus is a prominent and respected local attorney and former state legislator.

Alexandra Finch Hancock- sister to Atticus and Jim, live-in homemaker to her attorney brother. She is separated from her husband, but is socially prominent in Maycomb. She has one grown son.

Henry “Hank” Clinton- junior partner to Atticus, WWII veteran, best friend of Jem’s growing up, from a low-income family in the Maycomb area, attended college and law school on the G.I. Bill. Jean Louise’s high school beau. He was not a character in TKAM.

Calpurnia – The Finch’s retired housekeeper, loving and much-loved child minder of Scout and Jem after their mother died very young of a heart condition.

Jeremy Atticus Finch – known as Jem is Jean Louise’s older brother by four years, a prominent character in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he is now deceased from the same heart disease that killed their mother. In GSAW Jem is seen in flashbacks.

The Major Plot Points

All the important conflict centers on Jean Louise’s reactions to her father’s, sweetheart’s, uncle’s, aunt’s as well as most of Maycomb’s attitudes toward race relations and integration. Mainly though, she is totally disillusioned to learn that Atticus is not the saintly model of an evolved human being in his attitudes toward his fellow man like she always thought.

The novel makes use of many flashbacks to Scout and Jem’s childhood and high school experiences. There is also a series of vignettes that describe life in Maycomb. The conflicts between JLF and Atticus are advanced with these events.

  • Jean Louise on returning from her job and life in NYC to Maycomb finds her 72 year old father much older, terribly affected by arthritis but still dignified and very much a leader in town.
  • She reunites with her old flame Hank Clinton now Atticus’s law partner. Jean Louise and Hank have remained friends and regular correspondents since high school. Hank makes it clear immediately that he wants her to stay in Maycomb, marry him and never to return to NY.
  • One day JLF finds a pamphlet called “The Black Plague” in Atticus’s papers, then follows him and Hank to a Citizens Council meeting that is attended by hate mongers and racial bigots
  • Overwrought from witnessing her father’s participation in such an odious gathering, JLF runs to her Uncle Jim’s house for solace. There she learns that Atticus has even attended Ku Klux Klan meetings in the past. Jim explains the actual causes of the War Between the States from the Southerner’s perspective. Jean Louise’s world tilts on its axis. She is devastated and angry. She runs away absolutely shattered by her findings.
  • Jean Louise discovers that Atticus will represent Calpurnia’s grandson who has been accused of running over a drunk pedestrian. Atticus only does this to keep the NAACP from descending on the case and the town.
  • In a state of empathy, Jean Louise goes to visit Calpurnia. JLF is received politely but coolly and she realizes that her old friend doesn’t love her any more. She pleads with her, “Cal, Cal what are you doing to me?… I am your baby, have you forgotten me?… What are you doing to me?” Calpurnia responds, “What are you all doing to us?” Meaning what are the white people doing to the black citizens of the Maycomb area.
  • Jean Louise attacks not only Atticus for his views on integration, but also Hank. She tells the young lawyer that she could never marry anyone with his prejudices. Later in the same visit to the law office, Atticus spells out his “Jim Crow” views of Southern society. Stunned, Jean Louise escapes to pack and leave Maycomb forever.
  • Jim hears her rant at Atticus’s home, slaps her and then plies her with liquor. He explains that throughout the visit Atticus has purposefully been allowing Jean Louise to see him as an ordinary man and not the sin free demi-god she imagined. This has been so that she would form her own conscience and opinions. It appears that she can now think for herself and truly be an independent adult. All is forgiven except Jean Louise tells Hank they can only be friends. She could never live in Maycomb.

What is “Go Set a Watchman” Actually?

Despite Harper Lee’s agent’s and attorney’s claims to have discovered a long forgotten book by a revered author, friends and scholars have known of GSAW  for decades. It was the original document offered by her agents, Annie Laurie Williams and Maurice Crain, in 1957 to NY publishers. They were trying to secure a contract for a novel for the untried writer. In October, 1957, J.B. Lippincott had given Ms. Lee a contract for what was then an“untitled” work.  Here is an example of the agents’ meticulous record-keeping from early 1957 forward when the first chapter was received to the time of the contract. These cards track the metamorphosis of GSAW into TKAM.

"harper lee" Lippincott assigned the GSAW manuscript to a dynamic, experienced editor by the name of Tay Hohoff. She and Lee worked briefly on the GSAW novel but Hohoff saw the work as basically “unpublishable.” She described it as, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” However, using the resonance of Scout’s voice and the effectiveness of the flashback within the text, the editor saw the enormous potential of Lee’s talent and effort.  Hohoff said, “the spark of the true writer flashed in every line.”

"harper lee"For two years, Hohoff and Lee took much of the verbiage, the characters and circumstances described in GSAW and together they turned it into what Michiko Kakutani of the NY Times describes as a “distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech…into a redemptive page-turner.” “Go Set A Watchman” is the basis, the foundation upon which “To Kill A Mockingbird” was built. It is the very DNA of what Oprah Winfrey calls “America’s novel.”

What was published on July 14 of this year, was therefore, the unedited "harper lee"manuscript of a young unproven author that Harper Lee’s agents first gave to Lippencott in 1957. Lippincott optioned GSAW and used it as previously described, but ultimately returned the unchanged manuscript to the author’s attorney, Alice Lee, who placed it in a safe-deposit. It remained there for decades. 

The Critical Response to the Novel

Once you realize what we have all been reading, the harsh criticism of the book seems unfair. The problem is the novel was touted by Lee’s attorney, foreign rights agent and publisher respectively as being new, “a riveting story,” “a very, very, very fine book. Beautifully crafted…” “A brilliant book, a masterpiece that will be revered for generations.” William Giraldi of New Republic called these quotes “the dollar-sign salivating of the lawyer-agent-publisher trifecta.”

"harper lee"

1957 photo of Harper Lee taken by a friend

Reviews like the following ran around the world:

Adam Gopnik, New Yorker, “the novel could be seen as onslaughts of clichés and dialogue made of phamphleterring monologue or else eye-rolling chitchat.”

William Giraldi, New Republic, “the novel plods along in search of a plot,”

Alexandra Petri, The Washington Post, “It is an inchoate jumble…not by any stretch of the imagination good, or even a finished book.”

NPR Books called “Watchman” a “kind of mess.”

Headlines like:

“Why Fans Shouldn’t Read Harper Lee’s New Book” – Wall St. Cheat St.

“Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Should Not Have Been Published” – New Republic

“Michigan Bookstore offer ‘Refunds and Apologies’ for Go Set a Watchman”-Time

“’Go Set a Watchman’ Is Not Worth Reading. I Learned This the Hard Way” –The Washington Post

tell a dismal story.

Every one of these journalists understood the provenance of the book. I believe they were belittling Ms. Lee’s representation and not her work. If fully in control of the publishing decision, I can hear Harper Lee repeating something she said once while attending a ceremony at the Alabama Academy of Honor. She was asked to address the audience and she replied,  “Well, it’s better to be silent than to be a fool

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