Go Set a Watchman: little to celebrate about first chapter

‘The publishers are offering a rejected version of a loved novel as a sequel’


The first chapter of Harper Lee’s eagerly-awaited novel Go Set a Watchman has been released, portraying Scout Finch, central figure of her much-loved To Kill a Mockingbird, as a sexually-liberated young woman and her father Atticus Finch battling rheumatoid arthritis.

In the case of Go Set a Watchman, which is to be published in full on Tuesday, readers having been buffeted by months of hype, secrecy and conflicting versions of the re-discovery of the rejected manuscript, have now had an 11th hour carrot tossed to them. This embargo-beating teaser may well generate further orders. The hype has manufactured record-breaking pre-publication sales. Not bad for a manuscript which was rejected.

Embarrassed, certainly and also uncomfortable and most definitely, saddened; how can anyone be expected to offer a responsible review of the opening chapter of a novel? I can’t, I have to read the entire book.

There is little to celebrate about the teaser chapter of the book, which is set some 20 years after the events of the first novel, aside from its curiosity value. The prose is ordinary, the telling through a conventional third person voice. Scout, now called Jean Louise Finch, travels from New York back to her Alabama home town by train to visit her father.

We are told that he is not as young as he used to be, (and he was pretty old in Mockingbird, heading for 50 and weary), that her brother has died and that she has a suitor.

The manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was submitted in 1957. Rosa Parks had already refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus in December 1955 while the prose writers of the South such as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty were shining talents.

Lee, another Southerner, was advised to return to her desk and develop the flashback sequences featuring the child the young woman had once been. Lee acted on the advice. Scout told the story and a very different first person narrative flourished through the candour which Lee had brought to the original draft. The later version was accepted.

To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and became a film.

The novel’s obvious appeal was consolidated by a quietly dignified, Academy Award-winning performance from a Hollywood immortal, Gregory Peck. In accepting his Oscar, he thanked Lee. She thanked him for playing Atticus Finch by playing himself. It sounds a backhanded compliment but Peck personified a moral grandeur, as does Atticus Finch.

The promoting of Go Set a Watchman has been an unsavoury spectacle. Orders were taken; no reviews were sought from an industry normally obsessed with reviews. It was all to be embargoed until Monday night yet behold two publications have, in apparently separate deals, run the opening chapter.

Now we are witnessing a new low in publishing hype; the circus currently surrounding Lee is an exercise in manipulation as readers are urged to buy the book publishers rejected almost 60 years ago. Ironic is it not?

Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon, admittedly a Southerner, if from Louisiana rather than Alabama, is to be heard reading the book aloud on the Guardian website. That would have been planned weeks ago. This is a very calculated publicity campaign. Lee is reportedly delighted with the belated publication. A natural reaction, as any writer would be pleased to see a rejected first novel get published.

It is unfair to see cynicism by association affix itself to Lee’s touching classic. It is also rare to see cynicism and sentimentality so finely balanced; the publishers are homing in on a loved novel to offer an earlier, rejected version as a sequel.

But if the rejected novel is so wonderful, why was it rejected? We readers are helpless; we will read it. But it is not quite like comparing contrasting textual variations in Ulysses. The publication of Go Set aWatchman will not excite scholars. Publishers may well purchase novels on the basis of prizes won in other countries, or on four-page outlines, or on fascinating/interesting/human interest angles, often connected with the author’s celebrity, rather than by actually reading the book.

Many publishers admit to never reading more than 12 pages of any new manuscript. Often manuscripts are sent to outside readers. Small wonder readers look to reading clubs and word of mouth recommendations, and of course libraries, rather than heed publishers or reviewers.

Publishing has long ceased to be about literature; one need look no further than the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise for that. Before that we had the gimmick of the midnight releases for Harry Potter books. At least it was a bit of fun and it encouraged younger readers to abandon their Playstations, if only for a little while.

Lee herself has referred to this rejected first book as the ‘parent’ of her novel which she has always called ‘Mockingbird.’ Few writers would forget having a first novel rejected, and nor did she.

Lee’s sister, Alice, died last November. Among her papers were the manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird, and a second typescript, that of Go Set a Watchman. It is baffling that these apparently forgotten papers were not kept in a literary archive and were instead held by her elder sister. This naturally leads on to asking who prepared the rejected manuscript for its belated publication. Harper Lee does not appear to have been involved. She is 89 and is reportedly deaf and blind.

Had Alice Lee, who died last November aged 103, passed away 20 years ago we may have already had this publicity jamboree. Then again, if Alice Lee were still alive, none of this would be going on - not yet.

For all its appeal as a coming of age story, To Kill a Mockingbird is a brave polemic which predated the Civil Rights movement and most probably, influenced it. It is also a novel which was consolidated not only by the movie and by Horton Foot’s Oscar-winning screenplay but by Peck’s career-defining performance.

Its appeal rests in the simplicity and honesty of Scout’s voice. That first person voice elevated the novel; Peck’s performance secured its immortality.

To Kill a Mockingbird is comparable to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). These are all sacred texts and Lee, as a Southerner, took on small town hypocrisy and more importantly racism before the Civil Rights movement gathered full momentum.

Lee had literary ambitions; she wanted to be a Jane Austen, observing her society. She certainly exposed it. But she never wrote another book.

She did spend a great deal of time helping Truman Capote researching the Kansas murder which became In Cold Blood, which also won a Pulitzer Prize. Capote never fully acknowledged Lee’s achievement or talent.

But the world did. To Kill a Mockingbird has sold more than 40 million copies and has never been out of print.