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Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ gets polarizing reviews

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Even though Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” — the sequel to 1960’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” her first novel — is No. 1 on many best-selling lists, including The New York Times, it has been receiving negative reviews across the board.

“At first, I was eager to read it. In fact, I was going to purchase it with a gift card when it came out. However, my hopes were dashed when I read more into how it came about. Not to mention the lukewarm-to-awful reviews. I was sincerely hoping that it would be another masterpiece. So even if circumstances of its publication were shady, as long as it was a great book, I would have felt much better about it. I ended up buying ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace instead,” said English/media teacher Robert J. Fox, of Ann Arbor, who has only read excerpts from “Watchman” ($27.99 HarperCollins).

Lee, 89, won the Pulitzer Prize for “Mockingbird,” her seminal novel that still sells 750,000 copies annually 65 years later, has been translated into dozens of languages, has become a fixture in American literature, and has become required reading in high school curricula across the nation. It was adapted into the 1962 movie of the same name, starring Gregory Peck. It also marked the film debut of Robert Duvall. The movie won three of its eight Oscar nominations. Peck won an Oscar for his performance as Atticus Finch. The movie also won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and for Best Art Direction.

Set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala. during the Great Depression, “Mockingbird” is narrated by Jean Louise Finch, alias Scout, a 6-year-old girl. Scout recounts how her father Atticus, a noble and crusading attorney whom she adores, defends a black man named Tom Robinson who is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman. Even though the racist townspeople know Tom is innocent, he is nonetheless still found guilty and eventually dies when trying to escape custody.

When Fox teaches “Mockingbird” again in the upcoming 2015-16 academic year at Ann Arbor Huron High School, he has no plans to include “Watchman.” However, he does plan to touch upon it.

“It’s not enough to add another book with all the other books in the curriculum that I barely have enough time to effectively teach,” said Fox. “I would certainly considering using a supplemental excerpt or two.”

“Watchman” occurs 20 years after the events of “Mockingbird.” Set in the 1950s, it references the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, which declared separate educational facilities for black and white students are “inherently unequal.”

Scout is now an adult and goes by her given name of Jean Louise. She returns to Maycomb to visit her family and doesn’t like what she sees. It’s revealed in the beginning of the book that her older brother Jeremy Finch, alias Jem, has died of a heart defect.

What has outraged fans and academics alike is the uncharacteristic portrayal of Atticus. The noble, courageous attorney is now portrayed as a racist and aligns himself with the Ku Klux Klan, attending anti-black rallies. Jean Louise is devastated by her father’s behavior and actions. She feels all the beliefs and morals that Atticus instilled in her have been betrayed.

Jack Finch, Atticus’ brother, tells Jean Louise that Atticus isn’t racist, but is trying to slow the intervention of the federal government into state politics. When Jean Louis confronts Atticus about his behavior, he explains to her that black people in the south are not ready for civil rights. Not yet.

At the end of “Watchman,” Jean Louise makes amends with Atticus. She no longer sees him as an icon or a legend whom she puts on a pedestal, but only as a man — a good man with his own flaws and imperfections.

Fox called Atticus’ characterization “shocking.”

“Although I realize that people change and keep in mind – he was still a white man from his time period, so it’s not completely off-kilter – but the fact it was an earlier draft as opposed to a natural evolution of the character rings false to me,” he said. “I think it's a mockery to the legacy of Harper Lee, her novel, and Atticus Finch himself!”

Numerous reports from numerous media outlets have stated that “Watchman” was an earlier draft of “Mockingbird.”

“I will talk about the book in the context that it shows the writing process. How an idea can evolve over time. It’s a great examination of the editorial process in publishing and stresses the importance of rewriting. I always stress how writing is rewriting and ‘Watchman’ is a perfect example of how writing can get better if it goes through multiple drafts,” sad Fox. “In fact, I would have felt much better about this whole publication if it was marketed as a historical document/archival piece, rather than as a ‘sequel.’ I think that was very misleading. I was certainly duped initially.”

Brilliant Books in Traverse City has been offering refunds to people who’ve bought “Watchman.” The independent bookseller wants its customers to be “aware that (‘Watchman) is not a sequel or prequel to (‘Mockingbird’). Neither is it a new book. It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected. The book, and some of the characters therein, are very much a product of this era in the South,” according to its website.

“We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel. This situation is comparable to James Joyce's stunning work ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and his original draft ‘Stephen Hero.’ ‘Hero’ was initially rejected, and Joyce reworked it into the classic ‘Portrait.’ ‘Hero’ was eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans – not as a new ‘Joyce novel,’” the statement read. “We would have been delighted to see (‘Watchman’) receive a similar fate. It is disappointing and frankly shameful to see our noble industry parade and celebrate this as ‘Harper Lee’s New Novel.’ This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved American classic (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted.) We therefore encourage you to view (‘Watchman’) with intellectual curiosity and careful consideration; a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.”

To add to the controversy are the circumstances behind the publication of “Watchman.” A very private if not reclusive individual, Lee – who has declined numerous interviews over the years – vowed that she would never write another novel, much less a sequel to “Mockingbird.”

Further, Lee is in poor health. She suffered a stroke in 2007 and is legally blind and deaf. She currently lives in an assisted living facility in Monroeville, Ala. In 2013, she sued literary agent Samuel Pinkus, alleging he exploited her age and declining health by tricking her into signing over the ownership rights to “Mockingbird.” The case was settled later that year out of court, the details of which were not made public. After the death of Lee’s sister Alice – who was also her attorney and handler – in 2014, the release of “Watchman” was announced in early February.

Michigan-based attorney and author Steve Lehto has misgivings about “Watchman.”

“The only way my opinion has changed is with how the story has come out now – ‘Watchman’ is basically the first draft of ‘Mockingbird.’ That is now pretty well documented, which makes it seem even more likely that it was not something she would have wanted to publish. If anything, my opinion is stronger now – that she was unduly influenced, coerced, etc. – but this was not something which was her idea and I doubt it was something she was really on board with,” explained Lehto.

Fox added: “I can’t speak on that, but everything about this certainly reeks of someone being taken advantage of, even if she agreed to it in principle.”


 

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