Politics & Media
Jul 30, 2015, 07:04AM

Go Publish a Watchman

Tarnishing Harper Lee's reputation is good.

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Authors don't always get to control their legacies. Kafka didn't want any of his work published. Emily Dickinson might or might not have; we don't know for sure. And then there are the papers left after many an author’s death—letters, drafts, unfinished manuscripts, like Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth. Once people care about your work, they want more, and that includes your letters and laundry lists. The official oeuvre is a messy amalgamation, sometimes snatched out of the author's dead hands.

So, the publication of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman is hardly a novelty or an aberration. Joe Nocera at The New York Times frets and fumes under a headline claiming the novel is a "fraud" because it's more of a first draft than a sequel. Nocera points to a Harper Lee quote from her last interview: "I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing… is a lack of craftsmanship." For Nocera, this means that "A publisher that cared about Harper Lee’s legacy would have taken those words to heart, and declined to publish Go Set a Watchman, the good idea that Lee eventually transformed into a gem." But then, a writer who cared about Lee's legacy maybe wouldn't quote her boilerplate self-validating interview piffle, either.

Or, as an alternative, caring about a writer's legacy could mean not trying to protect the author from his or her own words, even if some of those words are ill-advised. Go Set a Watchman is not a great book, but it's an important look at Lee's artistic process, themes, and ideological commitments. Nocera's own essay is about the centrality of editing and craft to Lee's process, and he builds that argument on his knowledge of Go Set a Watchman. His reading of her work wouldn't be possible without the first draft. In excoriating HarperCollins for making the draft public, he inadvertently demonstrates one of many reasons why the new novel is valuable to scholars.

Of course, the novel isn't just available to scholars. Presumably Nocera wouldn't have any problems if the publisher had put Go Set a Watchman out in an expensive scholarly edition with notes and hardcover, designed to scare away the general public. It's the massive publicity, and the way the book is marketed as finished and authentic, that ticks him off. The novel is a very public and lucrative packaging of Lee's cast-offs. It's mediocre and undermines both her reputation for craft and her main character, Atticus, who in this version is a racist tool rather than a saint. HarperCollins took its 40 pieces of silver, and dumped a barrel of slime on To Kill a Mockingbird.

Which is a horrible thing if you take To Kill a Mockingbird to be holy writ. But it’s not. It's an okay young adult coming of age novel. It's become embedded in high school curricula because it addresses race in a manner that emphasizes the goodness, and even saintliness, of white people. To Kill a Mockingbird states that racism is bad in a way that is costless for most white readers.

Which is to say, To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel that can stand to be taken down a peg. Harper Lee is how American culture has decided to teach its children about race. For better or worse, she's a big part of our public intellectual landscape. Go Set a Watchman makes us question her place—and it's a place that should be questioned.

Atticus in the first draft isn't exactly Atticus in the finished book. But is it a bad to realize that upper class, principled white people like Atticus could in fact be really racist in the 1930s, the 1950s—and perhaps even today? Similarly, it does tarnish Lee to read Go Set a Watchman and realize that she’s queasy about interracial marriage and appears to believe a lot of neo-Confederate hooey about state's rights. Maybe Lee’s reputation should be tarnished.

Should Harper Lee be the great moral arbiter on race for American students? Go Set a Watchman shows clearly that she shouldn’t.  That's valuable information to have about a book that’s been so lauded. HarperCollins has done us all a service in showing us another side to Lee. I don't begrudge them their profits.

—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu

  • So which of the books showed us the real Lee? Obviously the one which makes her look bad. Taking down the successful is fun. Did she "grow"? Did she decide the commercial success was in Nightingale? Did her editors tell her which end was up and she'd better do it or else? Lot of that going around. See Woody Strode in "Sergeant Rutledge". Same theme, same plot albeit with more action, same release year. Was Lee told to get on the bandwagon? How many white people in Nightingale are good, anyway? One adult--Atticus--as far as I can tell. The rest put the guy in jail where he was killed. The premise that the book tells us about the goodness of white people in that time is false. It actually shows the good guy is outnumbered and eventually powerless against the rest of them. My wife and I were tutoring a couple of Nepali refugee kids in high school and they had to read the book. So we got the movie and the popcorn and went through it. Not that complicated, even if you have to stop so often it takes three hours.

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  • They both make her look bad. TKAM is kind of crap.

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  • I mean, they don't make her look *just* bad. They have strengths an weaknesses. Lee's been canonized as a kind of racial saint, though. Watchman calls that into question, which is good. (TKAM calls it into question too...but the sanctimony around that book is so thick people don't really see the text anymore.)

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  • Saying that "Maybe Lee’s reputation should be tarnished" is ignoring the fact that she didn't *want* this book to be published, assuming any popular and logical position as to why she didn't publish "Watchman" sooner. Some people might treat her as a "racial saint," but you treat her like an object, something that shouldn't have any say in what she publishes. You completely ignore the immorality of our very knowledge of "Watchman." "Caring about a writer's legacy could mean not trying to protect the author from his or her own words"—well, Noah, she protected herself. That should be enough.

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  • So...it's immoral for us to read Kafka's stories then? He said don't publish this, but it got published. Should all of those stories be destroyed and forgotten, or what?

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  • Considering I screwed up mixing nightingale with mockingbird, everybody should look at The Nightingale'sSong by Timberg. Different bird, same thought as to picking a bird for the title. Too bad Lee wasn't given credit for "growing", as ex Kleagle Robert Byrd was. All depends. As everybody knows.

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  • Kafka actually had a lot of stuff published in his lifetime... including some of his most critically acclaimed material. Should you not read "The Trial" because he never intended it to be published, because he never finished the book? Yes. This isn't an entirely unique situation. Lee, Salinger, these are people who valued their privacy, can't you respect that? Just reading "Watchman" makes you complicit in the moral crime.

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  • Okay, well, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. Scholars shouldn't read drafts? People shouldn't read authors letters? We shouldn't be reading most of Dickinson's poems, or Sanditon? I just think that's all nonsense.// You know what's a moral crime? Setting up a white racist as the nation's moral arbiter of race relations for children. I don't hate Lee, but given her importance, it's pretty important that people have a fuller picture of her work and approach. I don't think authors have absolute property rights in their work anyway — and in fact, the constitution says they don't. Copyright laws aren't property laws; they attempt to balance public interest in a work with authorial interest. I think that's a better way to think about the morality of publishing than pretending it's some kind of definite crime to look at someone's unpublished draft.// But, you know, if you don't want to read the Trial, don't, I guess. Your loss.

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