Go Set a Watchman is the #1 best-selling novel in America, and it has broken so many people’s hearts. The reason is Atticus Finch.
In author Harper Lee’s earlier novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1961, the character Atticus Finch is drawn by Lee as this good-hearted, ethical lawyer who fights bigotry in his hometown in the Deep South.
To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize and is taught in many classrooms today. And many people consider Atticus Finch to be a role model.
Now comes this new book by Lee, which turns out to be an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. Back in 1959, Lee was an unpublished novelist, 33 years old, very talented, and pretty much listening to her editor, Tay Hohoff, tell her she should re-write her draft because the way she had it would not fly very well.
In this earlier draft, Atticus is not a young lawyer but a middle-aged lawyer, and he’s very much a bigot. He has a grown daughter, who is the narrator and who is trying to come to terms with that.
Tay Hohoff’s advice is to set the plot 20 years earlier. Daughter Scout is 9. And she hasn’t yet seen the full flowering of Atticus’s personality. But she is still the narrator, at 9, and thinks her dad is this wonderful person. Lee re-wrote the book with this revised new draft, it got published this new way and many millions of people read it as Atticus the innocent lawyer full of hope and determination, out to change a world full of bigots.
Two generations of Americans have grown up with Atticus as their inspiration and role model. How could Lee do this to them?
It would be like writing a new movie script in which George Bailey, the wonderful young character in It’s a Wonderful Life played by Jimmy Stewart, turns out in a sequel to be a secret high-level drug dealer.
Many people are saying today that print is dead. It’s a long way from being dead. Here’s people who do not exist except in authors’ heads, put down on paper and into films (from a Philip Van Doren Stern short story) to become icons and role models for young people and future young people unborn.
It’s been said that Harper Lee’s lawyer noticed this earlier manuscript on a table in her house in Monroeville, Alabama 20 years ago and finally got somebody to publish it. Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, at 89 years of age, she is persuaded by others to let this earlier manuscript be published as her “second” book.
It would have been better for America if back in 1959 she’d thrown this earlier manuscript into the fire, like many other authors with bad ideas did. There were no copy machines then. There was carbon paper, though. Burn that, too. When it was gone, it was really gone.