The literary crimes of Go Set a Watchman

Are we really to believe that the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird is darker than he seems?

Copies of "Go Set a Watchman"
(Image credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

The publication this week of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, the long-lost cousin of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, has only inflamed the controversy that has surrounded the book from the day its existence was revealed to the public. The revelation that the beloved character Atticus Finch is depicted as a racist in Watchman, which started its life as an original draft of Mockingbird rejected by Lee's publisher, has only deepened suspicions that she has fallen victim to a predatory scheme concocted by her lawyer and abetted by a publishing company salivating over the prospect of a guaranteed blockbuster. Judging from the response so far, the book is, at best, an interesting literary artifact, showing how Lee transformed her disillusionment with white America into a powerful morality tale about racial justice and equality; at worst, it may be the most spectacular example of a revered author unwittingly destroying her own legacy.

If Watchman had been sold as an object of literary history, much of the ongoing controversy would have been avoided. But the discarded pages that line a novelist's wastepaper basket aren't exactly bestselling material, even if the novelist is Harper Lee. The book's publisher in the United States, HarperCollins, has insisted instead that Watchman is "in many ways a sequel" to Mockingbird, and that it is a "brilliant book" and a "masterpiece that will be revered for generations to come." (Full disclosure: Many years ago, HarperCollins gave me my first full-time job out of college.) The book's jacket copy boasts that it is "a magnificent novel in its own right," even as it "casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee's enduring classic." So here we have two arguments for the book's publication that might redeem what otherwise looks like a lurid story of greed, cynicism, and exploitation: that Watchman is a masterpiece "in its own right" and that it introduces new complexity to a familiar story.

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Ryu Spaeth

Ryu Spaeth is deputy editor at Follow him on Twitter.