The Controversies Behind Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”
A quickie primer on the “To Kill a Mockingbird” sequel
Up next on your summer book club’s agenda: Go Set a Watchman, the completely unexpected second novel from America’s beloved Harper Lee, which released today.
The background: It’s been 55 years since the publication of her one-hit wonder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, which went on to sell 40 million copies. Watchman reunites Scout and her dad, Atticus, picking up 20 years from where Mockingbird left off. But something’s fishy about the arrival of this book from the 89-year-old author who swore she’d never, ever, ever publish again.
Here, a complete breakdown of the gossip and conspiracy theories swirling around the surprise tome--all so you’re up to speed in front of your book-club pals.
“WATCHMAN” CAME FIRST, NOT “MOCKINGBIRD”
Lee allegedly wrote it two years before To Kill a Mockingbird, but when her publishers told her it needed a revise, she packed it away and started fresh. According to Lee, her editor also gave her some advice: Recast the characters, like transforming Scout (a 26-year-old adult in Watchman) into a kid. Mockingbird was the result.
THE BOOK WAS DISCOVERED AFTER LEE’S SISTER DIED
Alice Finch Lee (Harper’s older sis and legal protector) died in 2014 at age 103. In an interview, she claimed Harper had no other books. False. Reps from HarperCollins claim that Lee’s current attorney, Tonja Carter, found the Watchman manuscript while flipping through the original manuscript for Mockingbird at a secret location in Monroeville, Alabama, last year. According to Carter, Watchman was--quite simply--attached to the back. And a major development: There may even be a third, according to an op-ed penned by Carter in the Wall Street Journal.
BUT WHOA, LEE SAID SHE’D NEVER PUBLISH AGAIN
Family members and friends are still concerned over Lee’s sudden change of heart, especially since she’s spent decades staying out of the spotlight. (She hasn’t given a formal interview since 1964.) News of the book even prompted Mia Farrow to tweet, “Is someone taking advantage of our national treasure, 88-year-old Harper Lee?” See, in 2007, Lee suffered a stroke that left her partially blind, deaf and (according to many) easily manipulated. An anonymous complaint of elder abuse was even filed about Lee to no avail. After an investigation, the state of Alabama came back in March to confirm: Lee was coherent and on board with the publication of the book.
NOW THE BOOK IS OUT AND IT’S HUGE
Released today, the initial print run is 2 million copies. (That’s 750,000 copies more than this year’s biggest-selling novel, Grey from E.L. James.) Reese Witherspoon voiced the audiobook. It’s already No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list and has been in the top 10 since February, when Watchman presales were first announced.
WARNING: YOU MAY NOT LIKE HOW THINGS TURNED OUT
Watchman does contain one supersized spoiler: Atticus Finch--the hero lawyer in Mockingbird who fought inequality and warmed our hearts--is now an aging racist. He’s even attended a Ku Klux Klan meeting. Cue his daughter Scout’s (and our own) disappointment. However, a statement released by Lee (via her lawyer) in February claims: “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions of Watchman.” We’re hoping she means social progress….