Go Set a Watchman | Study Guide

Harper Lee

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Go Set a Watchman | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman created a stir when it was published in 2015, stemming from both from its content as well as its publication debut. In Go Set a Watchman, the town hero of her famous 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird has become a vocally racist father. Additionally, the publication of Go Set a Watchman was muddled in promotion and hype by extensive advertisement and false claims that it was a completely unique work.

Go Set a Watchman shares many characteristics with Lee's beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, leading to intense debates in the literary community about whether it should be considered a prequel, sequel, draft, or entirely new work. The novel was marketed primarily as a sequel, and fans of Lee were excited to finally hear from an authorial voice that had been silent for more than 50 years. Published under uncertain circumstances, and marketed in a somewhat misleading manner, Go Set a Watchman remains a fascinating example of Lee's early work, as well as a broader analysis of the practices of the contemporary publishing industry.

1. Go Set a Watchman was discovered in Lee's safety deposit box—and mistaken for a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

When Go Set a Watchman was first unearthed, it was mistaken for an early draft of Lee's famous 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee's lawyer, Tonja Carter, first discovered the manuscript while having Lee's assets appraised in 2011. The manuscript was sitting in Lee's safety deposit box, along with several drafts of To Kill a Mockingbird. At the time Carter assumed that the chapters describing her character, Hank, were merely early versions of the 1960 novel with characters' names changed. It wasn't until 2014 that, upon revisiting the box's contents, Carter realized that she'd stumbled upon an entirely different book of Lee's. Some critics still question whether Go Set a Watchman should technically be considered a draft of To Kill a Mockingbird due to plot and theme similarities.

2. There's been a great deal of controversy regarding the release of Go Set a Watchman.

After the worldwide success of To Kill a Mockingbird, fans were stunned that Lee never released another novel. Many have questioned the rationale behind this decision—as well as the timing of the sudden release of Go Set a Watchman. Lee was in a nursing home at the time of the new novel's release, and it's unclear exactly what role she had in its publication. Lee released a statement endorsing the novel's release, claiming:

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.

However, many have speculated that her lawyer, Tonja Carter, and her editor, Hugh Van Dusen, were entirely behind the novel's rush to publication in an attempt to cash in on Lee's popularity after more than 50 years of literary absence.

3. One bookstore offered refunds to customers who felt "duped" by the release of Go Set a Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman was glorified in the literary community and promoted by publisher HarperCollins relentlessly leading up to its publication in July 2015. Many readers were disappointed to find the novel wasn't entirely new—as it appeared more along the lines of a very early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. One bookstore, in particular, realized that readers who fell for the hype faced sudden disillusionment after bringing home a copy. Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Michigan, acknowledged this false promotion and allowed refunds to customers who'd purchased the book but felt disappointed. The bookstore released a statement, explaining:

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 (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted). 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.

4. At the time of publication, Go Set a Watchman was Amazon's most preordered book since Harry Potter.

Since Lee hadn't released a novel since her enormously popular To Kill a Mockingbird, fans were thrilled at the opportunity to read a new book by the author—even half a century later. Leading up to its July 2015 publication date, Go Set a Watchman claimed the highest preorder sales on Amazon.com since the seventh and final installment of English writer J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in 2007.

5. The title Go Set a Watchman comes from a biblical line about the fall of Babylon.

Lee's title comes from a line in the King James edition of the Bible in which the prophet Isaiah predicts the fall of the city of Babylon—a city destroyed by God for its sinful ways. The passage reads:

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. (Isaiah 2:16)

Lee's friend, historian Wayne Flint, explained that Lee intended to relate the biblical passage to the problem of racial discrimination in the United States, insinuating that "a watchman" was needed to prevent society's implosion. Flint clarified the title choice, noting:

[Lee] grew up in a Bible-reading family. She was imprinted with it as a child ... Nelle (Harper Lee) probably likened Monroeville to Babylon. The Babylon of immoral voices, the hypocrisy. Somebody needs to be set as the watchman to identify what we need to do to get out of the mess.

6. In Go Set a Watchman Atticus Finch is portrayed in radically different terms than in To Kill a Mockingbird.

In Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is portrayed as a heroic, noble figure condemning racial bias in an extremely segregated southern community. Critics have noted his character in Go Set a Watchman is completely unrecognizable in relation to the beloved socially conscious attorney of her 1960 novel. In Go Set a Watchman Atticus appears as a racist bigot with deeply held, unshakable convictions. This has led many to speculate on what—or who—convinced Lee to transform one of her main characters in such a radical way before finalizing To Kill a Mockingbird. Many point to Lee's editor for To Kill a Mockingbird, Tay Hohoff, as the voice who convinced Lee to rewrite Atticus's character, transforming him from a hateful racist into a kind, beloved father figure.

7. Critics slammed Go Set a Watchman for reading like a draft, not a novel.

Upon its release in 2015, Go Set a Watchman quickly garnered intense criticism from reviewers. Marketed as a prequel, a draft, and an entirely new novel all together, Go Set a Watchman received critical panning on all fronts. In a Washington Post article titled "'Go Set a Watchman' Is Not Worth Reading. I Learned This the Hard Way," reviewer Alexandra Petri commented:

It's not a new work. It very clearly contains numerous passages that were subsequently put to better use in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is an inchoate jumble, illuminated only sporadically by flashes of Lee's trademark wit.

Another reviewer commented on the absurd differences between Atticus Finch's portrayal in Go Set a Watchman versus To Kill a Mockingbird, noting:

This Atticus is different in kind, not just degree: He's like Ahab turned into a whale lover or Holden Caulfield a phony.

8. Many passages of Go Set a Watchman overlap with Lee's famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

One reason many critics consider Go Set a Watchman to be a draft, as opposed to a new novel, is that there's a decent amount of overlap in the text between the two novels. Certain passages are notably similar in content—albeit not word for word—in describing characters or historical information about the town of Maycomb.

Both novels feature a very similar passage describing how Maycomb was named after Colonel Mason Maycomb. Even more alarmingly similar are the passages describing Scout's aunt's corsets, both of which feature the exact same language:

Drew up her bosom to giddy heights, pinched in her waist, flared out her rear, and managed to suggest that Alexandra's had once been an hourglass figure.

9. The New York Times described the publication of Go Set a Watchman as an "epic money grab."

Part of the reason Go Set a Watchman became so controversial upon publication was the enormous advertising campaign created for it. The publisher, HarperCollins, stated that, at the time, Go Set a Watchman had been the "fastest-selling book in company history." For critics who saw the novel as nothing more than a failed draft, it's easy to see why the huge promotion campaign may have constituted something of a scam. This led New York Times columnist Joe Nocera to describe the book's publication as "one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing."

10. Lee once said American writers "lacked craftsmanship."

Despite her fame as a great American writer, Lee has made some negative comments regarding American literature of the years. In an interview she claimed American writers didn't use language as an art form, as she'd noticed in literary works from other traditions. She claimed:

I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing ... is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this—the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.

In an article following the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the New York Times used this quote from Lee to criticize publisher HarperCollins for cashing in on Lee's early work. The article claimed Go Set a Watchman was written as a draft before Lee was able to craft it into the gem that was To Kill a Mockingbird.

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