The Conundrum of a “Found” Manuscript

Okay, yes, I’m going to join in with all the ruckus about Harper Lee’s latest novel, released today, Go Set a Watchman. Join me?

And no, I haven’t read it; so if that’s going to make you crazy, consider this fair warning.

On the other hand, I’m not planning on spending a bunch of time on conjecture on writing or plot, although at least one review that does will come into play – and it is based upon the advance reviews that got my brain going.

I’m kind of fascinated with the fallout of these advance reviews. I’ve been conflicted about reading this new novel, but to be totally honest, the thing that most kept me away was that I didn’t want to read what was basically a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. I mean really, what good can come of that? One of my friends, Jen, had this to say a few days ago:

“So the main takeaway from this for me is, had things been like today, Lee would’ve just published [GO SET A] WATCHMAN and we would’ve been stuck with that story instead of [TO KILL A] MOCKINGBIRD. Right now, I’m thankful for gatekeepers and editors.”

Most reports indicate that Go Set a Watchman was the original story Lee submitted for publication, but her editor nudged her into what became To Kill a Mockingbird. ie: Lee’s manuscript was presumably improved because that is what we all thank editors for when we get those final, published books in our hands.

But then we find out this from Michiko Kakutani’s review in the NY Times:

“…Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down her are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter: ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?’”

Whoa. This is not the Atticus we thought we knew from “Mockingbird”. (Although, honestly, while Atticus definitely is not this awful in “Mockingbird”, I did not seem him quite as saintly upon a recent re-read.) It’s because of this drastic change in characterization that both worries me and fascinates me.

Here are some of the things banging around in my brain and I’d love for you to discuss with me. Let’s start with one of the most popular issues:

“I don’t want ‘Watchman’ to ruin my love for ‘Mockingbird’.”

I totally get this. Check out this post by Liam Stack who culls some reactionary tweets to Kakutani’s review (and other reviews). It’s hard to face something that could sully our memories of something great. On the other hand, sometimes we need to check those lenses on our glasses. How rosy have we let them get? A few weeks ago I wrote about this potential problem and even mentioned – glancing though it was – “Mockingbird” in that post about discovering that maybe the books we loved weren’t so great after all. Don’t get me wrong, I am not disparaging “Mockingbird” in the sense that we should drop it from anyone’s canon; there are a tremendous number of great talking points in it. But, well, my friend Sarah has a point when she says this:

“It has also made me think about my own possible prejudice. Like, do I love To Kill a Mockingbird because Atticus wins (and is white etc.)? Do I personally know any PoC who declare it to be the best book ever?”

Exactly. When I re-read the book this past year, I had some misgivings. And in that Twitter reaction post of Stack’s it’s worth noting that most, if not all, quoted tweets were from white people.

Also, wouldn’t it be a really good idea to offer a similar book by a black author that covers the same time period and region? How different would those perspectives be?

[UPDATE: check out Morgan Jerkins take on why we shouldn’t be surprised that Lee wrote Atticus as a racist. Yes to all of it.]

Speaking of perspective and a change of characterization, let’s talk more about what this means:

“Our beloved icon, Atticus, is not the hero we know and love from ‘Mockingbird’”

First, I’d argue that he was never quite as heroic as many would make him out to be (we can leave out the controversially misguided use of the term, “hero” and “heroic”, for now, okay?). Atticus did the right thing to defend Tom Robinson and he didn’t do any half-baked defense, either. He did it well. And he guided Scout and Jem to the best of his ability to stand tall in the face of insults, but… I don’t think he ever really gave a satisfactory argument in favor of equal rights for blacks. Am I wrong? I helped my son with his thesis about this kind of thing for a school essay and it was pretty hard to find direct evidence to support the idea that Atticus didn’t still have prejudice against African Americans.

Again, just how deep a shade of pink do we have on our glasses?

I really appreciated this take from my friend Jenny:

“I find the idea of an older, jaded, and yes, racist Atticus Finch so intriguing. Especially because that’s what Lee started with. The concept that Atticus was holier not because he was actually pure of heart, but because he was being perceived through the eyes of a 6-year old Scout actually makes me respect To Kill A Mockingbird a little more than I did before.”

Interesting. I can’t say I am fully on board with the idea that Lee re-structured “Mockingbird” to this end, but based upon Kakutani’s review, maybe she did? And if so, my fascination has grown.

On the other hand, this runs into a shallower issue for me:

Inconsistencies between the two books

You know how you watch a TV show over the course of a few seasons and you say, “Wait a minute, whatever happened to that clock that Pelant was messing with in Booth and Brennan’s bedroom?” or “Didn’t Booth used to have a son?” (Both are references to the TV show Bones, by the way, for newer readers of my blog, haha.) Inconsistencies can drive me crazy in a series. I can forgive a lot in a TV show, because the parameters they have to work with are far different than an author, who should be planning and referencing their own work over the course of a series.

I get that Lee’s publisher didn’t have quite that same luxury (although honestly, why not try? All news articles ultimately indicated that Lee is of sound mind, just can’t hear or see very well…. well, okay yes, it still would have been a challenge. Okay.), but it is one of my fears of reading the book. Sure, it could upend everything I thought I knew about Scout and Atticus, but if it all matched, then all right, I’m on board.

But it can’t. It just can’t. Not when there’s no opportunity for developmental edits.

Bringing me to a final, but related point:

“It’s a messy book. I mean, honestly, it reads like a failed attempt at a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird

These words are from reviewer Maureen Corrigan, interviewed on NPR. (Transcript of the story is given, but like many of their interviews, the transcript doesn’t quite catch everything – listening to the story is pretty interesting.) This circles back to my friend Jen’s words about gatekeepers and editors and to some of my misgivings right from the start. I love To Kill a Mockingbird for the polished story it became, not the “not-quite-ready” version it was. My cynical and pretty near-on-point side says this “found” manuscript was published only for the money and I want to cling to my altruistic side that says “who cares, it’s Harper Lee and Scout, for heaven’s sake – don’t we want more of that?”

I’m still not sure – but I’m still pretty interested. Will I read it? I did read the first chapter and there’s a little too much front matter though in parts it’s nicely lyrical. Also, I enjoyed the banter between Jean Louise and her boyfriend (? sort of), Hank. Also, just before posting this, I decided to put it on hold at the library. I’m #310 on the list, so I have some time to decide. 🙂

Look at all these talking points… what do YOU think? Will you read it? Why? Why not? What excites or concerns you?

You know who’s character doesn’t change? Scout – or Jean Louise as she is known in her more mature years in “Watchman”. Maybe, above all else, SHE is who we need to remember and appreciate in both books, don’t you think?

11 thoughts on “The Conundrum of a “Found” Manuscript

  1. Janet, thank you so much for posting this. These are great talking points, and all the things that I am having trouble with as well. I should mention that I haven’t read GSAW, nor have I read TKAM in many years. But like you, to me, GSAW is a draft of TKAM. Why would I want to read a draft when the final characters were so much more developed? Plus, Gregory Peck. How can any of us who have read the book and seen the movie not feel as if we are slandering a favorite, respected actor/character by reading/reshaping him in our mind with the latest book? OK, maybe that one is just me. 🙂

    I do wonder, though, about what you said of PoC and To Kill A Mockingbird. I think one of the magical things about the book, for whites and especially high schoolers, is that it made us see that just because everyone else thinks a certain way, it doesn’t mean we have to do the same, nor does it mean it is right. Rather, it is respectable (however hard) to keep from shying away from another human just because they are different, regardless of popular opinion (let’s not forget Boo Radley). The book, in a way, made us think about tolerance, and even gave us hope that it could be done fearlessly. It showed us that it *should* be exemplified because otherwise, what are we teaching our children? But PoC would not, I imagine, get that from the book because their mindset does not need to shift in that way (from intolerant to tolerant). Completely my opinion, of course, as I am not a person of color.

    Finally, one thing that I thought about when reading reviews was, “So does this mean Atticus was just doing his job in the book, letting justice be blind as it is supposed to be, rather than letting his personal views potentially deny Tom Robinson his basic human rights?” This is admirable if it is the case, and it does make his actions in Go Set A Watchman more understandable and, dare I say, makes him more of a complex, three-dimensional character in the end. But I am still undecided. I imagine I will read it in time, just not yet. 🙂


    1. Indeed, I do not want to take away the value that TKAM has brought and still brings, but sometimes I worry that I can become too complacent with the changeable nature of art. I think it is still a great book to keep in our curriculum, and I’m kind of hoping that teachers will bring in this new bit about Atticus because it’s authentic, really. And if that is what Lee had originally intended, then it kind of says a lot about our culture at the time that white editors felt the need to hero-up Atticus a bit more. I’d really love to have a face-to-face discussion with my future students on this one.

      Plus, yes to the more complex character in GSAW’s Atticus – that alongside Scout’s handling of it all is actually kind of what intrigues me.


  2. Love this post, and not just because I was quoted (I made a blog!). It’s funny, one of the things I was so excited for now that I have children was revisiting the books I loved in childhood. I started doing that and, with the exception of Charlotte’s Web, it has not gone well. At this point, I feel like nostalgia is for the birds and my daughters and I will be checking out what new authors have to offer us. I read To Kill A Mockingbird the summer before my 10th grade year in high school. I loved it. I remember intentionally slowing down my reading so that I wouldn’t finish too quickly. I loved Scout, and I guess I loved Atticus, but I was actually most enamored with the Boo Radley storyline (maybe I don’t share the same obsession many have with Atticus because I never was a fan of the movie with Gregory Peck?). Anyway, I’ve never revisited the book. I don’t think I ever will. When I first joined Goodreads and it had you rate books you’d read in the past, I gave To Kill A Mockingbird 5 stars. Honestly, I don’t really remember all that many details from the novel. What I do remember is how it made me feel and how it made 15-year-old me see the world differently and maybe even made me a better person. I’m not 15 anymore. I can’t believe it would have the same impact on me now. I’m happy to leave Scout and Boo and Atticus right where I left them. I’m thankful for Lee’s book and how much it mattered to me back then, but I stand by my tweet. I have no interest in reading a first draft. Whatever Go Set A Watchman is, I think To Kill A Mockingbird was probably better. And I’m not so lacking in good books to read that I’ll go read anything by an author whose book I once loved, even if it was the failed first draft of that same book. Also, it feels like a money grab to me.

    And on the subject of white people needing their heroes in the realm of racial equality to also be white, well, I could go on and on. But I think I’ll just read what some people of color have to say about that instead.


    1. I really like the Boo Radley storyline, too, and I appreciated how Lee was able to juxtapose those storylines with the Mockingbird theme.

      “What I do remember is how it made me feel and how it made 15-year-old me see the world differently and maybe even made me a better person.”
      I call that a win in any scenario, and that is also probably why you should not re-read… although, it might be worthwhile to in the future if your kiddos end up reading it for school. I imagine some great conversations.


  3. I am so immensely intrigued and simultaneously conflicted about this book. I appreciate your take. I still haven’t made up mind if I will read it or not as I lean toward your comment about cynicism on why this was published now.


    1. Right? I mean, in some ways I imagine Lee would like that it was, especially if this was the book she was more passionate about… but at the same time, my altruistic side feels cheated about the whole timing and process.


  4. I will probably read it. Whether Ms Lee intended for it to be released or not, it is here. And it’s Harper Lee. I can’t NOT read Harper Lee. Also, I don’t get the obsession with needing to LIKE characters in a book. I like NOT LIKE a character for very good reasons. Let’s see what this Atticus Finch is all about and since this is a PREquel to TKAM, what happens in this book that makes him the hero that we’ve made him all these years.


    1. Agree about not necessarily having to like a character! I think I’m now more interested in who Scout becomes in spite of Atticus, you know?


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