Eighth-grade English teacher Lauren LaMay and librarian Joanne Melinson recently read Harper Lee’s new novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which was published on July 14. (The Octagon interviewed each separately.) Lee is the author of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” published in 1960. According to the publishing house HarperCollins, “Watchman” sold more than 1.1 million copies in a week, giving it the title of “the fastest-selling book in the company’s history.”
Q: How long did it take you to read the book?
A (LaMay): Less than two days.
A (Melinson): A day and a half.
Q: How did it compare to “Mockingbird”?
A (LaMay): It is riskier and more experimental, in some ways, but also much more amateurish in terms of narrative structure and dialogue. Too often the characters give speeches instead of having conversations.
The difference in content, of course, is obvious: Atticus Finch is portrayed as a racist in “Watchman.” I do not see one iota of that in “To Kill A Mockingbird” (TKAM) – to the contrary. I cannot reconcile the Atticus Finch of one book to the other. It just doesn’t scan.
A (Melinson): As a novel, it’s a bit rougher and more experimental than TKAM. There’s less in the way of plot and character development (with the exception of Jean Louise’s character). You can see glimmers of TKAM in the childhood flashbacks, which I think is where Harper Lee’s writing shines, and which I imagine her original editor, Tay Hohoff, also saw.
But there’s also a harshness to this book that is smoothed out in “Mockingbird.” I believe that in some ways, “Watchman” is a more realistic portrayal of racial issues in the South at the time. Part of this could be due to “Mockingbird” being from the point of view of a child versus “Watchman” being seen through the eyes of an adult.
Q: What surprised you most about the book?
A (LaMay): That it existed at all.
A (Melinson): Spoiler alert: My first surprise was that Jem was dead, but that was nothing compared with the other surprises that were to come.
Q: What was your favorite part of “Watchman”?
A (LaMay): Actually “Watchman” is a much funnier book than “Mockingbird” in some ways.
A (Melinson): My favorite parts were those that were flashbacks to her childhood. These were brilliant scenes, and I think even more vivid than the ones in “Mockingbird.”
Q: What disappointed you?
A (LaMay): Although I appreciate the fact that Lee was giving the characters more complexity, in some ways, the portrayal of Atticus just didn’t live with the Atticus I knew. Atticus was the towering moral figure of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
I thought that Uncle Jack kind of stole the show in “Watchman.” That was a complete change in focus.
A (Melinson): Well, there were things that disappointed me on a writing level, and things that disappointed me on a more personal level.
The writing of the scene where Jean Louise argues with her uncle was almost unbearable to read because it went on for so long. It was a diatribe filled with allusions to politics and literature. I think this whole section would have benefited from some good editing.
On a more personal level as a reader, I was really sad to see that Jem was gone because he was my favorite character in TKAM.
Q: How was Atticus portrayed differently in “Watchman”?
A (LaMay): In “Mockingbird,” Atticus tells his brother Jack he hoped Jem and Scout never caught “Maycomb’s usual disease. Why reasonable people go stark raving mad when anything involving a Negro comes up, is something I don’t pretend to understand.”
This is not the same conception of Atticus as a character in “Watchman,” where this role is kind-of-sort-of given to Uncle Jack and Atticus is a passive preserver of racism.
A (Melinson): The interesting thing is that I didn’t think (Atticus) was portrayed much differently. However, at a faculty book club meeting, Ms. LaMay convinced me with textual evidence that there were some big differences.
He’s still a gentleman who loves the law and tries to uphold justice. I just think, from my modern perspective, that he is deeply flawed.
It’s when his back is against the wall – the NAACP and federal law are trying to change states’ rights regarding racist attitudes and practices – that his flaws are apparent. He now has something to lose (power) along with the other white citizens of Maycomb.
Remember, Atticus from TKAM took Tom’s case because he was appointed to it, not because it would have been his choice. He had hoped to avoid such a case in his lifetime. He does his job well because he believes in the law.
Q: Why did HarperCollins want “Watchman” published?
A (LaMay): I have to say that I think their vested interest is profit. I understand that the book has already been published in several different languages – what a bonanza for the publishing company.
A (Melinson): This will seem cynical, but I think they published it for the money and publicity. It would be nice to think that they wanted to expand the discussion of racism in this country or to show the evolution of a writer. Generations of kids have grown up on TKAM and its idealistic view of race relations. (One article I read in The Guardian points out that all the bad white people in TKAM either die or fade into the background, and there are no bad black people.)
We are at a point now in America where so many people, especially white people, thought we were past racial issues, but in the news every day now, we see violence related to racial tension, and it is clear that we have a long way to go. “Watchman’s” more realistic view of racism, if it is studied in conjunction with TKAM, could add a layer to the discussion of race relations and its origins, and perhaps effect some kind of change or understanding that an idealistic view – the one found in TKAM – cannot.
Fear of losing power, fear of change, fear of others – these are all things that contribute to racism, and “Watchman” brings some of these to light. It would be nice to think that this is the real reason why HarperCollins wanted to publish the book, and I wish I could believe that. However, it could be a useful byproduct of the publication even if the publisher didn’t really have that in mind. I think one of the things that the publication of “Watchman” has probably done is increase the sales of TKAM.
Q: What would have happened if “Watchman” was published before “Mockingbird”?
A (LaMay): If “Watchman” had been published first, there could have been no “Mockingbird.” “Watchman” was a kind of working-through of ideas for “Mockingbird.” Had Lee (or her editor) settled on “Watchman,” she would not have reworked and transformed her ideas into the classic novel “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which had a much different bent.
As far as I am concerned, “Watchman” is neither a prequel nor a sequel to “Mockingbird,” but a literary curiosity showing a famous author developing and in transition. This would certainly not be the first time this happened in literature. The pathways of the creative mind are mysterious.
A (Melinson): I think because “Go Set a Watchman” is not as well written as “Mockingbird” that Harper Lee would not have had the fame she has now. Because it’s a lesser book, I’m not sure as many people would have been interested in her second book and so perhaps might not have read it and propelled it to the level where it is now – American canon.
I think “Watchman” would have angered people at the time. It would have never been published because it was too near to what was really happening.
I think the editor was smart to have her set the story in Jean Louise’s childhood rather than the current day. It makes for a more readable book especially for the time period when it was published.
In a webinar I watched with Jonathan Burnham, he quotes from a publisher who looked over “Go Set a Watchman”: “I wish she hadn’t put her heroine in trousers . . . What she says, she says with vigor when she isn’t being smarties, which she sometimes is . . . I don’t think she should curse her father. It isn’t necessary or in keeping with her character.”
This is a clue to me that the sexism of the time would have prevented this book from being read. People didn’t like their female characters to be harsh or sassy. Anger was not a trait much admired in women, even though “Twelve Angry Men” (published five years earlier) was met with critical acclaim.
But anger was an honest and reasonable reaction from a woman who believed her father to be a good man only to find out that, from her more modern and liberal-influenced perspective, he was not. Even the Atticus in “Watchman” believes this. He knew he would fall from grace in her eyes – that it was just a matter of time before he fell from the pedestal she had put him on as a child.
Q: Would you ever consider adding “Go Set A Watchman” to your curriculum?
A (LaMay): No. I do intend to allude to it and give it some context if students want to read it on their own. For me, Harper Lee’s final and definitive word on the subject was “Mockingbird,” not “Watchman.” She herself said to a friend after publishing “To Kill A Mockingbird,” “I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
—By Ulises Barajas