What Will Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” Be Like?

The controversy just won’t die away; after decades of sweltering in a drawer, the prequel to Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird (and the only other full-length novel she seems to have written) is at last scheduled for publication. From what we can tell, it will star Scout as an adult, living far from her hometown of Maycomb, reflecting back, perhaps, on her childhood. In an old interview, Harper Lee recollected that when she first submitted the manuscript to a publisher, she was told that the best portions were flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, so she extracted those and worked them into To Kill a Mockingbird.

So where does that leave Go Set a Watchman? Will it just be the rejects from To Kill a Mockingbird?
Like half the universe, I loved Mockingbird as a child. It was one of the first “grown-up” books I read in an English class, learning to analyze its themes and tease out its hidden meanings. As an adult, I can see some of the more problematic aspects of its depiction of black characters, but even if it is simplistic, it remains a powerful and timeless portrait of race in small town American life.

But I feel myself to be honestly torn about whether I want to read Go Set a Watchman. I’m torn for the exact reasons that Harper Lee probably hesitated to have it released. She achieved such overnight, saint-like status in the writing world that she couldn’t possibly top herself with a second book. Her first effort was so beloved, so instantly classic, that she had nowhere to go. Won’t any other literary effort, particularly a manuscript that was long ago rejected, only tarnish her sterling record?

In a way, this is the fear every writer has after writing something good. We all know when we can be proud of ourselves; but almost as soon as the flush of triumph fades, we’re thrown into a panic, afraid we’ll never be able to capture that magic again. Surely it was a fluke; we aren’t really writers, we are merely lucky, right?

At some point, we all have to take a big gulp and try again to capture the magic; we have to stumble and maybe produce something disappointing. We have to keep pushing forward; we have to keep writing if we want to call ourselves writers.

So I think I will pick up Lee’s latest effort. If anything, it will provide an interesting footnote to her masterwork, and it could provide enlightening details into her process. I hope your feelings about Mockingbird won’t be easily changed by how this new book goes down.

Did you love or hate Mockingbird, and will you read Go Set a Watchman?

2 comments

  1. Michael Washburn says:

    This one of my favorite blogs on the whole web – you have so much to say that’s helpful and encouraging for writers. A wonderful resource. My only quibble is the occasional sniping remark about writers from a past era for their “problematic” depictions of one or another character. Please don’t rake them over the coals for not writing in conformity with contemporary p.c. standards.

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