History Retold Project
To Kill a Legacy
“I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing… is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this – the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.”- Harper Lee
In the sixties Lee took her good idea, Go Set a Watchman, and developed it into the great American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Fifty-five years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee released her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. Fans were beyond excited for the publication, yet confused as to why Lee would release another novel after stating multiple times she never would again. The unethical publication of Go Set a Watchman was a result of Harper Lee’s wishes not being granted.
Harper Lee’s vulnerability was taken advantage of in an attempt for a lucrative publication. The manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was discovered in 2011 by Tonya Carter, who had worked in the Law offices of Alice Lee, Harper’s sister (Kovaleski, Serge F., and Alexandra Alter). Alice had doubts about publishing her sister’s, Harper Lee’s, manuscript since she was eighty-six, mostly deaf, visually impaired, a stroke victim, and living in a nursing home. Three years later, Alice, known as Harper Lees “protector”, passed away, making Harper’s new “caretaker” Tonja Carter (Nocera, Joe). After gaining control of Lee’s affairs, Carter brought the manuscript to HarperCollins, a publishing company. Carter waited until she gained control of the manuscript to release the novel, which explains why the release would take place after Alice’s
death and three years following the manuscript’s discovery. Lee was susceptible to manipulation during this time for many reasons: her vulnerable state, the death of her sister, and her age, making her extraordinarily defenseless especially without the guidance from Alice, her protector.
The unethical publish of Go Set a Watchman impacts Harper Lee’s legacy in an unjust manner. It is quite jolting to see a fair, kind, fatherly figure like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird turns into a bigoted member of the Ku Klux Klan in Go Set a Watchman. How does the publication of Go Set a Watchman shift our perspective of To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee? “Reviewers have been horrified, and more than a little betrayed to learn that Atticus Finch – is a vocal supporter of segregation.” (Lind, Dara) Betray: to fail or desert especially in a time of need. (“Betray”) In an attempt for “one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing” (Nocera, Joe), Go Set a Watchman not only betrayed the readers who idolized Atticus Finch, but Harper Lee herself. Lee was in a time of need following the death of her sister and especially in her condition; yet, even after Lee promised to never publish a book again, HarperCollins released Go Set a Watchman. While 1.1 million copies were swiped off the shelves of bookstore, thousands of readers were shocked by the complete reversal of the characters that taught them important life lessons (Nocera, Joe).
Although there are many readers who are passionate about To Kill A Mockingbird, critics argue that Atticus Finch is a “white savior” and today would not be considered a lawful person. Go Set a Watchmen confirmed many critics perspectives that Atticus Finch was built on bigoted views. Is this fair? No. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960; a time when “basic equality was heavily debated and even banned.” (Franceschini, Elizabeth) To Kill a Mockingbird was important during this time in American history because it’s a novel that closeminded, white people were comfortable with, and it quietly contributed to the civil rights movement. The book
“opened minds and helped (pave) the way for reforms such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” (The University of Southern Mississippi)
Go Set a Watchman should be viewed as an artifact of an American classic rather than a novel. For starters, Annie Williams, Lee’s agent, didn’t even isolate Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird from one another. Williams would use notecards to track her client’s individual works, Lee’s notecard had a title that read: Go Set a Watchman, which was crossed out in pencil. Above it was written: To Kill a Mockingbird. (Kovaleski, Serge F., and Alexandra Alter) This single index card proves that there was a development from Go Set a Watchman to To Kill a Mockingbird and the two were never considered separate novels or even related to each other for that matter. Go Set a Watchman is essentially a first draft of critical writing process that resulted in an American classic that has impacted the mindset of generations. Publishing Go Set a Watchman rather than displaying the manuscript in a museum shifts the perspective of viewers into believing that the novel is some sort of sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman should have been kept as an artifact to preserve the life lessons that it taught us for the sake of the reader and Harper Lee.
For fifty-five years Harper Lee swore she would never publish another book again, yet in her final years of life while suffering from the death of her sister and suffering from her own health issues, HarperCollins goes against this wish and published Go Set a Watchman. Going against Lee’s desire just to publish a mediocre rough draft. I hope that Harper Lee’s story shows lucrative publishers that releasing a novel when it is not necessary is and unethical action that has repercussions not only for the reader but for the author as well.
“Betray.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/betray.
“Did Go Set a Watchman Spoil Harper Lee's Literary Legacy?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Feb. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/19/go-set-a-watchman-harper-lee-legacy-to-kill-a-mockingbird.
Franceschini, Elizabeth. “Opinion: Atticus Finch Isn't a Role Model, He's an Artifact.” MIR, 27 July 2020, https://www.mironline.ca/opinion-atticus-finch-isnt-a-role-model-hes-an-artifact/.
Kovaleski, Serge F., and Alexandra Alter. “Harper Lee's 'Go Set a Watchman' May Have Been Found Earlier than Thought.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 July 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/03/books/harper-lee-go-set-a-watchman-may-have-been-found-earlier-than-thought.html.
Lind, Dara. “Go Set a Watchman: Why Harper Lee's New Book Is so Controversial.” Vox, Vox, 16 July 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/7/16/8974447/harper-lee-go-set-a-watchman-racism-controversy.
Nocera, Joe. “The Harper Lee 'Go Set a Watchman' Fraud.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 July 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/25/opinion/joe-nocera-the-watchman-fraud.html.