Arts

To Kill a Writer’s Integrity

“Watchman” Disappoints After Months of Wait

By Clifford Michel

The release of “Go Set a Watchman” was anticipated for months. Literary circles around the country were buzzing about Harper Lee’s follow up to the classic American novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Midnight releases and book parties were held at virtually every bookstore.

And while the novel sold 1.1 million copies in its first week alone, the praise and excitement abruptly ended. There were no musings as to whether the sequel would find its way into high school curriculum or become a timeless classic.

Instead critics and readers began to hone in closely to the stream of rumors that preceded the book release.

Chiefly amongst them was that idea Lee never wanted the novel published at all. In the past, on multiple occasions, Lee told media outlets that she didn’t plan to write another novel.

A report from the New York Times speculated that Tonja Carter, her current caretaker and lawyer, may have found the manuscript for “Go Set a Watchman” in October 2011 while meeting with Lee’s literary agent, Samuel Pinkus, in a bank.

“Ms. Carter was present in the safe-deposit room and, along with Mr. Caldwell and I read manuscript pages,” Pinkus told the New York Times.

Carter has denied that she saw the manuscript at the time and “Watchman” publisher, HarperCollins, has stood by her side.

This conflicts with her official report that she found the manuscript in August 2014 and the timing is also convenient as some have wondered if Lee’s now deceased sister and then carter, Alice Lee, would’ve allowed Carter to give the manuscript to publisher HarperCollins.

Lee is also partially deaf and blind and is also suffering from memory loss, leaving a sinking feeling in the stomach of every reader that Lee’s closest aides may have taken advantage of her.

“Go Set A Watchman” reads like a very crude first draft and evidence seems to point towards it: according to a notecard used by one of Lee’s earliest agents, “Watchman” was the original title for “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

The story portrays a much older and racist version of Atticus, a literary figure that has come to represent justice and racial progress in America. The reader is forced to accept that Atticus was always this way and the novel, which is billed as a sequel to “Mockingbird,” fails to provide sufficient reason for his racist views, besides a few scenes where he is depicted as bothered and annoyed at the state of the world.

It is a far cry from the just, level-headed Atticus many have grown to know and a sloppily transitioned version at that.

The book follows Jean-Louise, known primarily as Scout in “Mockingbird,” as she rediscovers Maycomb, Alabama on a short visit. She soon realizes the town’s increased racial tension in the form of a White Citizens’ Council, which the book describes as a watered down version of a Ku Klux Klan meeting.

The story culminates with Jean-Louise confronting those closest in her life about their racist beliefs. In all of these exchanges, Lee paints a portrait of an incompetent Jean-Louise, whose time in the city simply blinds her from seeing where others are coming from.

In exchange after exchange, Jean Louise is put down and even in her most in-depth confrontations, fails to make a coherent argument about race, and even voices some of her own concerns about it.

Her beloved Uncle Jack says that it’s time to come home to the South to help change things and Jean-Louise tearfully embraces her father, thus making him a sympathetic figure.

In other words: she was wrong. Her racist family members? Well, that’s just who they are.

“Watchman’s” only redeemable quality are the vivid flashbacks that tug on reader’s memories of “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The flashbacks also have very relatable and charming coming-of-age quality to them as they explore Jean-Louise’s adolescence through the eyes of a resistant tomboy.

“Watchman” essentially asks the reader to accept these retrograde beliefs on race and discrimination. All these inconsistencies compounded with clichéd writing force us to wonder if this book should’ve ever been published.

Walking and smiling past other excited readers all carrying the same novel was fun and inspiring; it made reading (what was perceived at the time of the release) good literature cool.

But be assured, “Watchman” is no classic. In fact, I believe if Lee were more able to do so, she’d be the first to criticize it.

 

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