Jack Hanson on the Harper Lee hype
THE CONTINUING FRENZY over the publication of Harper Lee’s long-awaited follow-up to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird is a case study in market hype and the literary world’s discouraging biddability.
Set twenty years after the events of Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchmen tells the story of Scout, now an adult and going by her real name, Jean-Louise, on a visit from New York to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. There she discovers her father, Atticus Finch, the moral hero of Mockingbird, has degenerated into an entrenched, even extreme bigot, awash in racial hatred and anti-black paranoia. (Her hometown is much the same, though we already know this from Mockingbird.) In a particularly striking passage, which has been quoted often during the wall-to-wall press coverage of the book, Finch cannot grasp his daughter’s lack of regard for racial boundaries, asking incredulously: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?”
The novel is a charting of Jean-Louise’s disillusionment with her father and the place she called home, as well as her attempts to reconcile her simultaneous love and revulsion for these pillars of her upbringing. Well, I say that, but what the novel really is, by all accounts, is a first draft. Nearly every review has lamented Watchman’s sluggish pace, lifeless dialogue, two-dimensional secondary characters—all told, the book is fatally underdeveloped.
No surprise there: after early reports of Watchman being a sequel to Mockingbird, a more accurate picture resolved into focus (with a sketchy lawyer and publisher lurking in the background). Far from being a development of the 1960 classic, Go Set a Watchman was the first draft submitted to Lee’s editor, who suggested a rewrite in which the protagonist is much younger. And though one could make the argument that the world of Mockingbird is structured by Scout’s youth, I would say that the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird, rather than being a childish plaster-saint rendered more “nuanced” by his later bigotry, seems to be a refinement of the earlier form of the character, one who puts aside his racial unease (which is clearly visible even in Mockingbird, pushing Watchman’s “revelation” one step closer to irrelevance) to defend the higher ideal of equality before the law. Why attach the deformed predecessor to an already complex and much more accomplished work?
First, of course, is that the book will sell. Amazon reported Watchman as its most pre-ordered book since the final Harry Potter and, recalling those halcyon days of Pottermania, many bookstores scheduled midnight-openings to meet the anticipated demand.
This also explains the literary world’s excitement over Watchman. Politics, especially the politics of race, is one of the dominant topics of literary discussion today, and many are working to add writers' voices to the mainstream debate (beyond lit-mags and Brooklyn). And while Lee may not share the extraordinary gifts of an Ellison, a Baldwin, or a Morrison, Mockingbird is nevertheless one of the few books you can guarantee your audience has read. (Not to mention the fact that we like attention, and everyone’s looking at us.)
But is hyping up a first draft really the best way to add gradation to the flat surface of public discourse? Wouldn’t it be much better to recall those much superior writers and thinkers or even (and, don’t mistake me, many do) to elevate debate simply by speaking thoughtfully in one’s own capacity?
So, the book has already broken records, and even the negative reviews don’t seem to be as deflating as they might be for another book. But that doesn’t change the fact that Go Set a Watchman’s preordained success seems like little more than good marketing, and, like all marketing campaigns, I expect it will blow over sooner or later. That is, until the movie comes out.
JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan.
Photo credit for homepage: White House, photo by Eric Draper, via Wikimedia Commons.