Released on July 14, Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman has already sold more than 1.1 million copies amidst much conjecture about its origins and publication. Add to that the new book’s characterization of the beloved Atticus Finch as a born again racist, and you have controversy in the book world that, among other things, sells books. The fact that I don’t have to tell you who Atticus Finch is is proof of the wide-ranging extent of the debate.
Joe Nocera recently wrote a column in The New York Times entitled “The Harper Lee ‘Go Set A Watchman’ Fraud.” He calls the book “one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.” He notes that Ms. Lee’s sister Alice, who looked after her for many years, died late last year and that it was her new protector–a woman in Alice Lee’s law office–who “discovered” the manuscript a few months later.
Nocera goes on to suggest that the new book is actually the first draft of Lee’s exceedingly popular and lucrative To Kill A Mockingbird, in which “the saintly”Mr. Finch stands up to the racism in his small Southern town: “Issue No. 2 is the question of whether ‘Go Set A Watchman’ is, in fact, a ‘newly discovered’ novel, worthy of the hoopla it has received, or whether it is something less than that: a historical artifact or, more bluntly, a not-very-good first draft that eventually became, with a lot of hard work and smart editing, an American classic.”
I haven’t read the book, but my sense from the things I’ve read about it is that it’s neither well-written nor particularly compelling. Nocera quotes from a 1964 interview with Ms. Lee: “I think the thing 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.”
I believe Ms. Lee was right in 1964, and one of the prime reasons for much of the less than literary fiction we see today is money. Ms. Lee is said to be in deep decline, living in a nursing home in Monroeville, Alabama. She may not know what’s going on, and that may be a good thing.