Why you should read Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman


Go Set a Watchman, the first book from literary enigma Harper Lee since her 1960 debut, To Kill a Mockingbird, is out today. Yet opinions have been spouting for weeks about plot points, Lee’s consent (or lack thereof), and the decision to release it at all.

We spoke with Deborah Appleman, a professor at Carleton College and director of its American studies program, to filter out what you need to know before cracking open the world’s most unlikely sequel.

Lee’s Consent is Not Essential

Until recently, it was a generally accepted fact that Harper Lee would never publish another book after the canonical To Kill a Mockingbird. Her older sister Alice Lee was essential in her retreat from fame, keeping the press away and acting as a buffer for any unavoidable encounters with the public. But in November 2014, Alice Lee died. Less than three months later, the plan to publish Go Set a Watchman was announced.

Naturally, people were suspicious. Now that her sister was gone, was Harper Lee tricked into releasing a new book? The Alabama Department of Human Resources conducted an investigation and found no abuse. But that verdict is not convincing enough for some.

“Do I, as a human being who’s empathetic, care about whether an elderly woman in an assisted living place might have been taken advantage of in this scenario?” asks Appleman, who has a special interest in Lee after teaching Mockingbird in high school for many years. “As a person, I care about it.”

But empathy for Lee and a childlike giddiness for the continuation of the Mockingbird story can exist simultaneously.

“Remember, Emily Dickinson put all of her poems in an envelope and stuffed it in a drawer and never expected anyone to read them aloud, anyone to see them,” Appleman says. “In some ways, the circumstances that bring a work to us are not necessarily relevant to our understanding of the work.”

[Spoiler Alert!] Atticus is Now a Racist

“My first instinct is to say no, unless Go Set a Watchman completely sucks,” says Appleman of whether the new book could affect the image of Harper Lee or Mockingbird.

It turns out some people do think it completely sucks, and for one reason: Atticus is now a racist.

Everyone’s favorite father-daughter super team appears once again in Watchman, but progressive Scout (Jean Louise) is disturbed when she returns home and confronts her intolerant father. A New York Times article on this revelation explains:

Atticus Finch — the crusading lawyer of To Kill a Mockingbird, whose principled fight against racism and inequality inspired generations of readers — is depicted in Watchman as an aging racist who has attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting, holds negative views about African-Americans, and denounces desegregation efforts.

If you’re upset — as many are — about the tainting of a revered moralist character like Atticus, remember that Watchman was written first.

“In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman,” says Lee in a press release from HarperCollins. “It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman... My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout's childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout.”

That new novel became Mockingbird. Rather than a sequel, it seems Watchman is more of a first draft.

“I don’t know if it was ready for prime time yet,” says Appleman of Watchman. “That’s in comparison to the highly polished, highly edited, highly intentional To Kill a Mockingbird. This one is almost like apples to oranges.”

Apples and oranges, or published and unpublished. The important piece in separating these two novels is that one became the other. The sparks of potential that Lee’s editor saw in Watchman were molded, rewritten, and transformed into a completely new work.

So when you’re reading Watchman and the characters say things that don’t make sense, events take place that are incongruous, or you feel like you’re in a Twilight Zone version of Mockingbird, take comfort. This is not the same world.

A New Harper Lee Book

As a book most people read growing up, To Kill a Mockingbird resides in a soft, if not sacred, spot in many hearts. The story of racial injustice in 1930s Alabama is powerful enough to capture attention, but it’s the compelling prose that ultimately seals that lifelong connection. In that vein, Appleman gives the only reason you need to read Harper Lee’s new book:

“One of the reasons why I want to read [Watchman] is because To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautifully written book and, unless you’ve had a lobotomy or something, she has some style. If she wrote it there’s got to be something about it that is important.”

We are about to live in a world where two Harper Lee books exist. That’s probably a good thing.