HARPER LEE’S NEW NOVEL HITS SHELVES

The FIRST CHAPTER of Harper Lee’s highly anticipated Go Set a Watchman was published on July 10 by The Wall Street Journal.Go Set a Watchman

The story opens with Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, returning to Maycomb by train from New York to visit her father Atticus, who is debilitated by rheumatoid arthritis. The chapter is heavy on exposition, touching on, among other things, a cousin who ended up in a state institution for firing a gun; description of the Chattahoochee river and the countryside; the history of Colonel Mason Maycomb, for whom the town and county of Maycomb was named; and a joke train porters play on young ladies by stopping the train past the station. There’s also a surprising development regarding Scout’s brother.

The book, which releases on July 14, 2015, has been the subject of controversy after questions about whether Harper Lee was mentally fit to agree to its publication.

Early critical reactions to the first chapter of the novel are uneven.

Lynda Hawryluk at CNN championed the work, saying it features “long sentences beautifully rendered and evoking a world long lost to history, but welcoming all the same.” But in a review for The Telegraph, bearing the headline ‘Would it have been kinder not to publish Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman?’, Mick Brown writes: “there is a reason [this book] was not published in the first place.” He continues: “What immediately strikes you reading this first chapter is its utterly conventional voice, its lack of spark and intimacy.”

Reactions on social media were also varied, ranging from praise to criticism to lightheartedness.

As it happens, Lee’s Go Set A Watchman has been one of the most talked about books of the year–Lee, the author of the canonical To Kill A Mockingbird, who has lived much of her life out of the public eye and never published another novel, suddenly has another book. Watchman was actually written before To Kill A Mockingbird, though it features the same setting and many of the same beloved characters.

The book caused some controversy, though, because there were serious questions about whether Lee, who now resides in an assisted living facility, was mentally fit to sign off on the publication of the manuscript, which was found last summer amongst her papers. ALThough the state of Alabama conducted an investigation and concluded that Lee was indeed of sound mind, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY asked their own readers how sure they really were that Lee was of sound mind and capable of agreeing to publish the book, and how the controversy over its publication was affecting their decision whether or not to read this book, which is sure to be a mega-bestseller.

There are, of course, those who have no reservations. Here are some comments.

  • “I preordered a copy at my local #indiebookseller & can’t wait.” -@bankswrites, Twitter
  • “Pre-ordered, anxiously waiting, can’t not read it.” – theterritories-sa, Tumblr
  • “Don’t we all want to see if it’s any good?” -@doughshiloh, Twitter

“Pre-ordered audiobook. Can’t Wait!” -judithdcollins, Tumblr

One reader is willing to fight off pangs of guilt and uncertainty in order to read the book: “I will read it, but I’ll feel guilty about it.” @KLDSanders, Twitter

Still others need further proof, if not of Lee’s acquiescence then of the book’s quality:

  • “Only if the reviews are good because I feel that Lee did not want to publish it.” -rufiousreader, Tumblr
  • “Still torn! Will most likely buy it but not read it until a clear and unbiased statement is released from her saying it’s a-okay!” -sevengee, Tumblr

And One reader is unwilling to read it: “Not going to read. Love and respect Harper Lee too much to read something that was in all likelihood released without her true consent and understanding.” -Michelle Reed, Facebook

Although the release of anything but the FIRST chapter of Go Set a Watchman has been embargoed until the official publication date of July 14, a number of media outlets, including the New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian managed to secure copies.

The major reveal of their reviews has been that the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch, a character who became a symbol in the fight against racial inequality, is shown in Watchman to be a racist.

In her review for the Times, Michiko Kakutani writes that in Mockingbird, “Atticus praised American courts as ‘the great levelers,’ dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’ In Watchman, set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he denounces the Supreme Court, says he wants his home state ‘to be left alone to keep house without advice from the N.A.A.C.P.’ and describes N.A.A.C.P.-paid lawyers as ‘standing around like buzzards.'”

As the now-grown Scout, who idolized her father in Lee’s first book, returns to her hometown of Maycomb, Ala., from New York City, she grapples “with her dismaying realization that Atticus and her longtime boyfriend, Henry Clinton, both have abhorrent views on race and segregation,” according to KAKUTANI’s Times review.

In ITS review, the Washington Post takes further note of the transformation of the noble Atticus readers know from Mockingbird. To quote from WATCHMAN. “He joined the Ku Klux Klan and attended one meeting and is now a board member in one of the newly formed Citizens’ Councils springing up in communities throughout the South to oppose desegregation, in ‘protest to the Court . . . a sort of warning to the Negroes for them not to be in such a hurry.'”

The revelation, while deeply disappointing to some Mockingbird fans, has resulted in more public debate about the book, and could potentially lead to higher sales for the most-hyped book since the last Harry Potter.

From the review by The GUARDIAN comes the following headline:

Go Set a Watchman review – more complex than Harper Lee’s original classic, but less compelling and an equally unflattering subtitle: Scout has lost her swagger and Atticus fans will be shocked by a satisfying novel that nonetheless vindicates the direction taken by Harper Lee’s classic debut.

And now, here is, with very minimal shortening, is the Guardian’s review of GO SET A WATCHMAN.

Go Set a Watchman is a third-person narrative, in which twentysomething Scout, now favouring her baptismal name of Jean Louise, returns from New York to visit Atticus, who is 72 and seriously arthritic, in her home town of Maycomb.

A few passages exactly overlap between the two books, principally scene-setters describing Maycomb, Alabamian history and local folklore such as the comical legal consequences of the intermarriage of the Cunningham and Coningham clans. A handful of paragraphs alluding to the Robinson rape case in the 1930s (though with one crucial detail changed) were expanded to hundreds of pages in To Kill a Mockingbird. Considering this, had the text now published been the one released in 1960, it would almost certainly not have achieved the same greatness.

This is not so much due to literary inferiority, as it is that Go Set a Watchman is a much less likable and school-teachable book. The just-published work belongs to the genre in which prodigals return to find their homeland painfully altered; disillusioned by the “Atomic Age.”

Scout has notably lost the sassy swagger that makes her childish voice in Mockingbird so compelling.

Advance publicity has billed this newly published book as a chance to reunite with the “much loved” characters of Scout and Atticus. THAT promise proves barely half true. When the homecomer frets that no one in Maycomb remembers the “juvenile desperado, hellraiser extraordinary” that she was, THE READER is tempted to shout back “NO! We Remember!”

Although we wince when she approvingly notes the smell of “clean Negro”, with all that term implies. (Unlike Mockingbird, Watchman’s text seems to have been printed much as submitted.)

With regard to ATTICUS FINCH, though, some lovers of the classic version may feel moved to ask if they can now file an emergency rewrite of their school or university essays. While one of the book’s two great shocks – the failure of a major figure to survive into the 1950s – is emotionally jolting, this second shock shatters the traditional reading of Atticus as a saintly widowed single father whose views on race were decades ahead of his countrymen.

While both books present the racist hate speech of their eras WITHOUT CENSORSHIP, Mr. Finch, This liberal hero, who was ostracised as a “nigger lover” in Mockingbird –– is found behaving in WATCHMAN (set in the 50s) in a way that admirers of print and film (played by Gregory Peck) versions of his earlier life will find painful and shocking. To the horror of Scout, the anti-racist lawyer FINCH now attends public meetings to oppose the supreme court’s attempts to impose integrated education and equal voting rights in the south.

The shift in Atticus’s attitudes proves to be nuanced and rooted in the deep political complexities of the south – which New York editors may have thought too obscure for a broader audience – but their excision significantly altered the story. While there can be no doubt that the editorial attention given to Mockingbird made the narrative more gripping – WATCHMAN contains no climax like the courtroom drama of the Robinson trial. Not only that, the book can also be accused of liberally sanitising the contents.

If the racial politics of Watchman are unsettling to contemporary book buyers, time has been kinder in another area–feminism. In MOCKINGBIRD Scout was appealingly established as a proto-feminist when she is being tutored in the manners of a lady. Scout replies that she is “not particularly” interested in being a lady. In WATCHMAN, which, remember, was written BEFORE Mockingbird, Scout continues in adulthood her refusal to submit to conventional domestic expectations of females.

Regardless of whether WATCHMAN is considered the prequel or the sequel to MOCKINGBIRD, it is in most respects, a new work, and a pleasure, revelation and genuine literary event.

Teachers of American literature have a fascinating opportunity to create a course comparing and contrasting the two books. Also, according to The Guardian, there is clearly a possible new movie of To Kill a Mockingbird combining both stories in a remake/sequel, naturally utilizing a series of interlocking flashbacks, which is very fashionable these days.

Until then, Go Set a Watchman does shake the settled view of both an author and her novel. And, unless another surprise for readers lies somewhere in her files, this publication intensifies the regret that Harper Lee published so little during her writing life.

And now, From just about 6 hours or so ago, I found a review from NPR, which says

Go Set a Watchman is a troubling confusion of a novel, politically and artistically, beginning with its fishy origin story. Allegedly, it’s a recently discovered first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m suspicious: It reads much more like a failed sequel. There are lots of dead patches in Go Set a Watchman, pages where we get long explanations of, say, the fine points of the Methodist worship service.

The novel turns on the adult Scout’s disillusionment with her father — a disillusionment that lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird will surely share. Reeling from the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Atticus reveals himself as a segregationist and a reactionary extremist. He’s a staunch proponent of states’ rights, a critic of federal programs, even popular ones like Social Security and the G.I. Bill, and a foe of the NAACP.

Yet, the more poignant revelations in Go Set a Watchman have to do with Scout; at 26, she’s still a sort of tomboy, talking herself into marrying a childhood friend named Hank. At least half of this novel is devoted to Scout’s (or Jean Louise’s) torment over not feeling like she has a place in the world.

Mallory Kane
The Hummingbird Place
Romance News, 07/13/2015
garnered from various newspapers and other sources.

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