Was Harper Lee competent enough to consent to the publication of Go Set a Watchman? According to the State of Alabama’s Human Resources Department’s investigation, yes she was. But let’s just imagine for a moment that the answer was no. That in actual fact Lee stands by her wish not to have the book published. Does that mean we shouldn’t read it? Beyond that, what are we reading? Is it in fact a first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird refined and edited by Tay Hohoff or is it meant to be a follow up, a sequel to the Pulitzer Prize winning novel?
Having read the book I guess my feelings on the first question are clear. If I’m honest it had never even occurred to me not to read it till a friend mentioned that she wasn’t sure. I can sort of understand where she is coming from. Is reading something someone didn’t intend to be published prying into their privacy? If it is, should we take the same stance on books published posthumously, such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion and more recently Anne Frank’s Diary? I’m sure many people would argue that the situation isn’t comparable as Harper Lee is still alive but these are just my musings.
I have to be honest and say I don’t know the full publication histories of those books listed above. Bar Anne Frank’s diary, I’ve no idea if the authors had submitted the manuscripts to their publishers well in advance of dying, if they had then it would seem right to take their book to the final stage of publication. Which sort of takes us to the next question, is the Go Set a Watchman manuscript a completed book waiting for publication? It certainly reads as if it is.
Lee’s writing style is different in this book; there is something much softer in her writing in To Kill a Mockingbird, a fondness for the place and people she is sharing with us that isn’t quite there in Go Set a Watchman. It could be argued that this is because Watchman became Mockingbird. With editorial insight, fine tuning and redrafts her writing became more refined. But I’m not convinced. Go Set a Watchman has two distinct tones, the harsh scratchy edge that tells the story of 26 year old Jean Louise Finch coming home to visit from New York, and the childhood memories of Scout. When Jean Louise reminisces we see the style and softness of Mockingbird. These are memories she is fond of, a time that is precious, possibly rose tinted. In contrast her visit back from New York is tainted with disappointment, anger and what she sees as betrayal. Whether a first draft or a sequel I believe the writing style differs because of the emotional place Lee is in when writing about the events rather than because of a refinement or improvement in her writing.
I don’t want to make this review a spoiler because people should read this book and journey with Harper Lee themselves. What I will say is that I feel that the end brings the two parts of Lee together, a place of acceptance. And maybe just maybe in her later years she realised the need to let this story be told in order to let go of a god she had created in Atticus Finch.