The Controversy of Go Set A Watchman

The Controversy of Go Set A Watchman

Yesterday, I finally got around to posting my review of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman. The publication of this book has been surrounded by mystery and shade, with many Lee fans choosing to boycott the book altogether. So, today I’m writing a round-up of how this book came to be published, and the controversy surrounding it.

The original draft manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird was considered “lost”, but was allegedly found in a safe deposit box during an appraisal of Lee’s assets in 2011, by her lawyer, Tonja Carter. Carter denies this, and instead claims to have discovered the manuscript in 2014. The date of discovery is very important. Lee, a victim of stroke, who was registered blind and suffered from poor hearing, was residing in an assisted-living home while under the care of her elder sister Alice. Lee’s sister passed away just two months before the publication announcement of Go Set A Watchman, when her lawyer, Carter, had gained control of Lee’s affairs.

When the discovery was made, “Lee” released a statement that read, “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called Go Set a Watchman. It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

Lee famously declared, on multiple occasions throughout her life, that she would not write or release another novel, so this apparent change of heart does seem out of character. This, combined with Lee’s declining health, fuelled suspicions that she did not give consent to publish Watchman. Questions began to surface about “elder abuse”, with the State of Alabama investigating claims that Lee was coerced into publishing Watchman. They found no foul play, but it’s worth noting that it wouldn’t have been the first time Lee had been misled…

 In April 2011, Carter notarized an agreement where Lee signed away the copyright for To Kill a Mockingbird to a company ran by Pinkus, Lee’s literary agent at that time. In January 2012, Carter became Lee’s durable power of attorney, which allowed her to act as Lee’s legal stand-in, even if she became unable to make decisions for herself. In 2013, Lee sued Pinkus to reacquire To Kill a Mockingbird’s copyright, ultimately settling out of court. Her lawsuit claimed she was “duped” into signing documents because she trusted Pinkus and had “physical infirmities that made it difficult for her to read and see”. During an interview in 2015, Carter was asked how Lee could be fooled into signing away her copyright to Mockingbird in 2011, yet four years later be sharp enough to handle publication decisions for Watchman. Carter commented only to say she wouldn’t discuss anything to do with Lee.

Aside from the suspicious circumstances surrounding the publication of Watchman, doubt has also been cast over whether the novel should have been published at all. A representative from Lee’s original publisher, Lippincott, claims they were aware of the original manuscript, and never even considered publishing it, as it was simply a draft of the novel that eventually went on to become a modern classic. After all, how often do authors make their draft work publicly available for purchase? Watchman‘s US publisher, HarperCollins, wouldn’t release advance copies of the book to reviewers, instead maintaining “the strictest of embargoes”. Having now read the work, I do wonder if this was because it isn’t the “sequel” they marketed it to be, and had reviewers reported on this (and perhaps on its lack lustre content), the record-breaking pre-orders and sales may not have happened at all.

Independent bookstore, Brilliant Books, Michigan, went so far as to offer refunds to their customers if they felt they had been conned into purchasing the book, by releasing a statement saying: “We at Brilliant Books want to be sure that our customers are aware that Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel or prequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. Neither is it a new book. It is a first draft that was originally, and rightfully, rejected… We suggest you view this work as an academic insight… 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 eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans – not as a new ‘Joyce novel’… 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… We therefore encourage you to view Go Set A Watchman with intellectual curiosity and careful consideration; a rough beginning for a classic, but only that.”

Some have commented that the publication of Go Set A Watchman may impact upon the legacy of To Kill A Mockingbird. I sincerely hope this is not the case. Having read both books, and as I consider myself a massive fan of Mockingbird, I can safely say that while I found Watchman to be disappointing, both in content and in literary merit, it in no way impacts upon my love of the final novel. I have chosen to view it as an insight into the creative writing process, and as a fascinating historical artefact, and I would encourage others to do the same.


About Rachel

Avid reader & #bookblogger. Lover of all things business. A fan of drinks & dancing. Ever optimistic. Feminist.

13 Responses

  1. I’m surprised that a book store would so openly criticize a book it selected to market. Perhaps they also felt duped. In any case, I think that is a massively bold statement. After reading as many things as I could when it came out, I formed my own opinion. Given the copyright duplicity and Harper’s many well-known comment over the years, I don’t believe Harper was fit in any capacity to take on the publishing of a novel.


  2. Such a well-written piece, Rachel. I didn’t know I could be more upset about this, but hearing that this lawyer may have already been taking advantage of Harper Lee with the signing over of the copyright of Mockingbird makes me even more furious. And it just seems so underhanded by the publisher to not release advanced copies, making one believe they knew exactly what it was they had in hand (a draft of Mockingbird), but elected to market it as a sequel for, what it boils down to, money. I do think there is a place for Go Set a Watchman as you put it as “an insight into the creative writing process” and I wonder if there would have been any marked difference in sales if the public had been presented with it as such.


      1. I would have much more likely been interested in it if the publishers informed us that it was a draft. I remember hearing about Atticus when it first came out and I was like “No, that isn’t right, that doesn’t make sense” and now I know why.


  3. I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird and really loved it, so when I heard about Go Set a Watchman I was very excited. But after hearing much controversy around it, and reading not-so-good reviews about it, I decided to not reading it. I’ve done some searching about the controversy, and I have to admit, the change of heart is really out of characters. For years after publishing TKAM Harper Lee stayed out of spotlight, refusing to publish another book, and just tried to be normal. So why would all of sudden, when she’s old, she decided to publish it? It’s a really interesting discussion for many people, with lots of doubts and suspicions.


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