A delight almost physical
July 9, 2015 9:40 PM   Subscribe

At last: Read the first chapter of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. First impressions from Jason Steger of Melbourne's Age newspaper.
posted by misterbee (47 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm nervous and excited about the prospect of this release. Did the world ever get more of a sense of how above board this whole thing is?
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:09 PM on July 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

Agreed. I'm super excited about it, but hoping it was published with her genuine support and knowledge, and also nervous about whether it lives up to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is one of my favorites.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 10:12 PM on July 9, 2015

The Guardian website is really well done for this. Beautiful, even. It doesn't even bother me that it auto-plays sound when you go there.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:41 PM on July 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

The graphics and background music remind me of the adventure game Kentucky Route Zero.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:44 PM on July 9, 2015

SpacemanStix: “The Guardian website is really well done for this. Beautiful, even. It doesn't even bother me that it auto-plays sound when you go there.”
It's cicada season, and when that sound played, I pleased me more than I thought was possible.

The Reese Witherspoon narration is actually pretty good too.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:31 AM on July 10, 2015

Careful though, the Guardian currently has what seems to be a huge spoiler for the first chapter showcased in pride of place on the live blog right next to the book excerpt...
posted by runincircles at 12:35 AM on July 10, 2015

'It.' 'It' pleased me. Not 'I.'

posted by ob1quixote at 12:38 AM on July 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Pretty good.
posted by Segundus at 4:32 AM on July 10, 2015


"She was almost in love with him. No, that’s impossible, she thought: either you are or you aren’t. Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all."

Omg she needs to take that shit to the green.
posted by greenish at 4:59 AM on July 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

> "Did the world ever get more of a sense of how above board this whole thing is?"

My understanding from reading various news articles on the topic is:

1) There has been some more general weirdness in regards to the whole thing, such as strangely contradictory reports of exactly when and how the manuscript was found, but

2) There was an investigation from the Alabama Securities Commission into whether Harper Lee was of sound mind, and aware of and approving of the release of the book, which included talking to Harper Lee herself. They said everything seemed fine and they found no reason to intervene.
posted by kyrademon at 5:18 AM on July 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm glad I read this this morning, and I look forward to the rest. At worst, it's going to be an interesting oddball curio of Harper Lee's views about women and marriage (or at least a particular young woman) in the mid 1950s, and it feels like it will probably be more than that (though, for me that would almost certainly be enough for me to tear through it.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 6:12 AM on July 10, 2015

Side note (don't think i saw it posted here), Mallory Ortberg wrote a piece about the editors and the manusctipt and the whole whiskey-tango-foxtrot-ness of it that really nails it - worth a read.
posted by sidereal at 6:35 AM on July 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

I really need to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I know it will be good and I know it will be enjoyable but it always gets put off in favor of some other book or thing.

My not having read it is mostly by coincidence. I grew up in the South and its one of those books that almost every student is assigned to read during junior high. But, I was placed in a group that had to read A Separate Peace instead. I did not enjoy that book. The other class next door was chosen to read To Kill a Mockingbird.
posted by Fizz at 6:48 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well that was indeed a delight; definitely buying this one.
posted by sidereal at 7:26 AM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I dont see the point of releasing just a chapter, apart from as a marketing gimmick. People will start passing judgement and criticism on the basis of this one chapter itself ... which I think would be a disservice to Ms. Lee.
posted by TheLittlePrince at 7:33 AM on July 10, 2015

Side note (don't think i saw it posted here), Mallory Ortberg wrote a piece about the editors and the manusctipt and the whole whiskey-tango-foxtrot-ness of it that really nails it - worth a read.

For those who still have some concerns about Harper Lee's state of mind regarding her decision to publish.

Alabama Officials Find Harper Lee in Control of Decision to Publish Second Novel [New York Times]
The lawyer for the author Harper Lee, Tonja B. Carter, received notice on Friday that an investigation by Alabama officials into whether Ms. Lee, 88, and confined to an assisted living facility, was manipulated into publishing a second novel has been closed and no evidence of abuse or neglect had been found. Bobby Segall, a lawyer for Ms. Carter, confirmed receipt of the letter, which was dated April 1 and sent by the State Department of Human Resources, the agency that has led the inquiry into whether Ms. Lee was coerced into agreeing to publish a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird” this summer. Mr. Segall said that neither Ms. Carter nor he had any further comment. The inquiry was begun in response to at least one anonymous complaint brought to state officials.
posted by Fizz at 8:13 AM on July 10, 2015

I'm sure those Alabama officials are incorruptible. The very words "Alabama Officials" inspires such confidence and sense of legacy. I mean, this would've been published posthumously anyway, but the lawyer didn't want to wait another 16 years maybe and figured "close enough." That Toast piece is pretty damning of HarperCollins attitude.
posted by rikschell at 9:05 AM on July 10, 2015

Looking forward to reading a book with zero lazy 21st century novel tropes.
posted by sidereal at 9:08 AM on July 10, 2015

Delightful. Sort of like a J. D. Salinger but with a sense of humor. And with Brooklyn replaced by Alabama, if such a thing is possible...
posted by jim in austin at 9:33 AM on July 10, 2015

Fizz: "I really need to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I know it will be good and I know it will be enjoyable but it always gets put off in favor of some other book or thing. "

I didn't read it until I was in law school -- just never came up on the curriculum -- and as I was reading I kept going back and forth between rage that nobody ever made me read it during my formative, and delight that I was getting to experience such a glorious book for the first time in its full complexity and beauty as an adult.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:36 AM on July 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

From what I understand the state investigation would have had a fairly narrow brief ensuring only that no abuse or neglect was taking place.

The stories of the timeline and the "discovery" seem to remain suspect. Depending on who you ask the manuscript was never actually lost or unknown except to her current caretakers and publishing agents. It seems that the only thing that has changed around the book is the appearance of a legally acceptable pretext for release.
posted by anazgnos at 11:50 AM on July 10, 2015

I kept going back and forth between rage that nobody ever made me read it during my formative, and delight that I was getting to experience such a glorious book for the first time in its full complexity and beauty as an adult.

Every single time I've come back to this book at some point in my life, I've come away from it with a renewed appreciation for it for completely new reasons than the last time I read it, finding completely different but no less rewarding interpretations of its themes and symbolism. It's a powerful and wonderful book that seems to teach you different lessons you come away feeling you really needed to learn at whatever particular point you're at in your life when you engage with it. It reveals more and more of itself with every rereading. I really can't say enough good stuff about this book, personally.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:13 PM on July 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

OK, others admit they haven't read TKaM, so I can admit it now with slightly less chagrin.

Just downloaded it on iBooks, and preordered GSaW. It'll be nice to read them back-to-back.

Ah, to have things to look forward to...
posted by sidereal at 12:27 PM on July 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I dont see the point of releasing just a chapter, apart from as a marketing gimmick.

But it is a great marketing gimmick. I'd forgotten the book was going to be coming out, and now I'm planning to pre-order it tonight.
posted by Area Man at 1:39 PM on July 10, 2015

Actually, that's not a disappointment. Black readers always knew Atticus was a racist, just that he was the genteel liberal kindly sort. And dealing with your complicated old relatives is a big part of white-Southerning.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:17 PM on July 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Eh, I could see Atticus as racist but not that sort of one-size-fits-all racism described. Atticus being the kind to praise MLK Jr while disparaging Malcom X or the Black Panthers? Yup. Atticus attending Klan meetings? Nope.
posted by bgal81 at 6:06 PM on July 10, 2015

It's definitely intriguing and worth a read. I think the idea of Scout having to deal with the heartbreak of realizing her father is not who he seemed, might resonate with a lot of people in my generation. Many of us have seen our once-reasonable parents become increasingly shrill, angry, and bigoted as we've gotten older, and wondered "were they always like this and I didn't realize it because I was just a kid, or have they just spent too much of their retirement marinating in the toxic bleating from cable news and political talk-radio?"
posted by and miles to go before I sleep at 7:27 PM on July 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think the theory right now (sorry, can't find links, but this older story hints at it) is that Watchman was Lee's original draft of Mockingbird. After receiving advice to focus on the main character's childhood, she revised some of the characters -- including Atticus. If that's the case, then trying to read into Lee's commentary on how racism can fester and blossom in old age is a pointless endeavor. I think ultimately these two books will be valuable as documents to compare to see how a writer changes a story, and why, and what effect those changes have. But to accept these books as a deliberate prequel/sequel pair is not correct.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:50 AM on July 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm very interested to read this book, having recently re-read TKAM and having a sense of deep mourning for the optimism about racial relations in the US that it seemed to imply-- or if not optimism, at least the sense that things could get better. But people have been reposting this article by Malcolm Gladwell which, I think rightly, points out how personal and local the view of class and race in the the book really is. Maybe this new book is going to, among other things, reveal contradictions that were always there in Lee's work.
posted by BibiRose at 10:12 AM on July 12, 2015

Marketing gimmick? I guess. But my first thought was: well I'm curious about the book but I'd want to read a little bit of it first and see if it's any good before committing. To my surprise I really enjoyed it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:00 AM on July 13, 2015

The Reese Witherspoon narration is actually pretty good too.

Fun fact: Reese Witherspoon's debut film was The Man In The Moon. It was the last film by Robert Mulligan who also directed To Kill A Mockingbird.
posted by cazoo at 9:08 AM on July 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Damn it - that absolutely fascinating-looking last link is paywalled.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 3:12 PM on July 13, 2015

According to CNN, that paywalled piece suggests Carter may produce a third partial manuscript.
posted by BibiRose at 3:46 PM on July 13, 2015

Sorry; here's the CNN link.

Carter wrote that she recently examined the contents of the box in Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and saw the manuscript for "Watchman" lying "underneath a stack of a significant number of pages of another typed text."

"Was it an earlier draft of 'Watchman,' or of 'Mockingbird,' or even, as early correspondence indicates it might be, a third book bridging the two? I don't know," Carter said. Experts, under direction from Lee, will be asked in the coming months to authenticate the pages, she said.

posted by BibiRose at 3:48 PM on July 13, 2015

Damn it - that absolutely fascinating-looking last link is paywalled.

You can get to it by googling the url and following the link from there.
posted by homunculus at 4:20 PM on July 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

vultures gonna vultch
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 4:56 PM on July 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

An op-ed in The Independent (Ireland) makes a good case that the novel should not have been published, at least not in this way.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:36 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have decided not to read it. I'm too uncomfortable with Lee's inability to approve or edit the work, and to be honest I don't want Atticus Finch ruined. I feel like I'm allowed to have at least a few fictional heroes who are maybe not realistic.

If it were published as a scholarly edition of her first draft, it probably wouldn't bother me. But this bothers me.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:49 PM on July 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Anne Thériault makes a good case defending the racist Atticus turn of events.

It convinced me at least. We can learn more from a well meaning white man (who can even do the right thing to help a black man) who happens to be racist anyway, than from an impossible liberal idol.
posted by idiopath at 10:49 AM on July 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Good call from Salman Rushdie.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:04 PM on July 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

What is Go Set A Watchman? Is it a sequel? Is it, as Harper Lee called it, "the parent of Mockingbird"? We may never know for sure. Harper Lee's state of health and willingness and/or ability to share her state of mind are tenuous. Certainly her publisher has made the book seem like a callous cash grab, and having an Alabama state commission certify Lee's involvement has not put the issue to rest, considering the historical competence of Alabama state commissions. But I'm not sure it matters, in the end. Presumably, the manuscript would have been found eventually and published, the permission given by Tonja Carter, the same lawyer and personal friend who has been Lee's recent mouthpiece. Despite Salman Rushdie's concerns, this is not a work of juvenalia. Neither is it the perfect, polished gem that To Kill A Mockingbird is. But it is certainly the best book of 1958, and may well be the most important novel of 2015. I've heard many comments from people afraid to read the book because it might be against Lee's wishes, or because it might tarnish their respect for Atticus Finch. I'd like to make the case that you should read this book, even if you have those concerns.

Immediately it becomes obvious that this is Harper Lee's authentic voice. There's no fakery here. It's written in third person, and it's not quite as finely polished as Mockingbird, but this is no first draft. Jean Louise Finch is still very much Scout, still getting into her particular scrapes and speaking in her unique patois. She such a great character, flawed and innocent and idealistic and selfish and kind and confused. And this is a very funny book: I laughed out loud at every flashback, and many other times as well. Most of the reviews I've read have been quick to point out how inferior this book is, and I have to wonder why those critics hate fun. The stuff about the Methodist music director? Maybe its just too inside-baseball for the New York crowd, but that is rich.

It's obvious why Tay Hohoff, Harper Lee's editor, jumped at the chance to publish her: she's a hugely talented writer. But if Go Set a Watchman as currently published is representative of the manuscript Lee originally submitted (and I have a theory why that might not be the case, which I'll get to later), I can see why Hohoff thought it might not be a hit in the late 1950s (the book is set after the NAACP was outlawed in Alabama in 1956, and according to the article cited above, it was submitted to Hohoff in the spring of 1957).
But as Ms. Hohoff saw it, the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.” ... Ms. Hohoff offers a more detailed characterization of the process in the Lippincott corporate history: “After a couple of false starts, the story-line, interplay of characters, and fall of emphasis grew clearer, and with each revision — there were many minor changes as the story grew in strength and in her own vision of it — the true stature of the novel became evident.”
I hate to second-guess the decision that brought about Mockingbird, a beloved classic. And it's obvious why Harper Lee's editor asked her to rewrite the book focusing on the period of time covered by the flashbacks. The flashbacks are hilarious, and less racially charged (though still instructive). The world of Maycomb comes to life in those long summer days of pretending with Jem and Dill. Hohoff's judgment call was proven right. But there's so much great material in Watchman that stands on its own. Mockingbird was a total rewrite. The books share characters, the events of Mockingbird were expanded from a brief reference in Watchman. The first book really does stand as a sequel to the second, and it shakes me that it's only being published now.

Harper Lee has long been a mystery. Her first book is one of the most successful novels of the 20th century. And then she never wrote another. Why? Some people thought it was because Mockingbird was ghost-written by Truman Capote. That's obviously absurd, but the abscence of information births conspiracy theories. Now I think we finally have the answer. If I had an editor who rejected my book, and basically took over and made me rewrite everything according to her designs, I might learn to doubt my own judgment, especially faced with overwhelming evidence that my editor made the right call. Considering that the lesson of Mockingbird is almost the exact opposite of the lesson of Watchman, is it any wonder she gave up entirely? Reading this time-capsule book makes me angry and sad that we lost such a brilliant, daring, and entrancing writer much, much too soon.

Go Set A Watchman is so good that I can't help wondering if the plan was always to publish it after To Kill A Mockingbird. Perhaps a deal was struck, perhaps this version was even revised after Mockingbird was written, and then somebody lost their nerve. After the overwhelming success of the book and film, maybe nobody wanted to puncture what Atticus became. Maybe the publisher backed out, or maybe Harper Lee couldn't bear to tear down her fictionalized father now that he was famous. Because Atticus takes a serious beating in this book. When Scout finds the racist pamphlets and Citizens Council meeting Atticus has turned his attention to, it comes as a punch in the gut to both Jean Louise and to the reader. Toward the end, Atticus defends his positions in a lawyerly way; Scout makes no headway in changing his mind, but she cannot accept his views, which amount to "blacks are so backward we cannot accept them in society."

It's time for white folks to realize that Atticus Finch (even at his best) is a racist, and we all are racists, too, benefiting from a system we did not create and did not ask for. White people are damaged in the process (just as men are damaged by patriarchy), but not as damaged as those who the system is designed to hurt. We can work against that system, but we have to first fight our impulse to believe that it isn't pervasive, isn't maybe so bad, isn't something we have to pay attention to constantly. I still have to go through the mental conversation with myself when I see Sandra Bland arguing with the Texas lawman: just go with him so he doesn't hurt you, call your lawyer and get it sorted out; but wait, what about Freddie Gray? just going with the cops and doing what they say can get you killed; oh my God, she was doomed from the start, over a failure to signal that no white man would get pulled over for ever. I literally can't believe how bad things are, because the world is designed to protect me from it.

The story of Go Set A Watchman is a coming-of-age one, though it's not the sort of teenage independence narrative we're used to seeing. It's more of a young-adult-finally-discovering-the-truth-about-the-world story, a story I find playing out in my own life over and over, no matter how far from young-adulthood I get. One of the thrills of To Kill A Mockingbird is the way it captures Scout's voice as both a whip-smart child and as an adult reflecting back, all at once. Go Set A Watchman, written in the third person, is more of a looking-back exercise on its face. But though Lee makes Scout the moral center of this tale, she's not meant to be as socially aware as she thinks she is. Her politics, like many of ours, are intuitive more than long-studied. She knows justice and kindness when she sees them, and she doesn't see them in Maycomb anymore. Through much of the book, she wonders whether it was always like this, whether Maycomb has changed or she has. Both are true.

All the political talk (if not the racial talk) in Go Set A Watchman could have been written this year. It's sad how long our positions have been calcified: distrust of the federal government reaching back to the New Deal, states' rights as an excuse for segregation, people on both sides talking past each other. Atticus sounds for all the world like a Ron Paul supporter. I guess I've always presumed that most of our progressive politics had their origins in the 1960s. But Scout was no hippie; it's more that the Right has been so successful in demonizing the labor movement that a huge part of American history has basically been erased. The cultural artifacts we celebrate from the 1950s do not resemble Go Set A Watchman. We have the strait-laced horn-rimmed button-down post-war hero. We have Atticus Finch from Mockingbird.

To Kill A Mockingbird is rightly a classic. You have to credit Tay Hohoff for seeing the bones of that story in this one. But Mockingbird is a middle school level classic, and Atticus is the hero of the story. Go Set A Watchman is the adult version. It restores Scout to being the hero of her own story. Atticus's betrayal is meant to cut deep, and the more you love the man, the more you need to read this book. So much work has been left undone by white Americans. We are all Scout, we are all twenty-six now and it's high time we start seeing what's in front of our faces.

It's true that the end is a bit of a letdown. There's a little too much focus on Scout having to accept her father as a human. Considering how many readers have put Atticus on a pedestal, that message is warranted, but it does not feel sufficient. Atticus's brother, a character unseen in Mockingbird, has too much exposition placed in his mouth. There is the suggestion of a way to live in the South uncompromisingly that is not explored but left to the reader's imagination. I was left wanting more, but this story by its nature can't have the sort of resolution we'd like to have. Still, ending with the idea that love is the only decent way forward . . . it's a start. And like Scout I feel very much at the start of my journey of racial awareness and justice.

I feel so grateful this book has finally seen the light of day. This material is way too good to leave in a drawer. It's a rare gift for readers, to spend a little while longer with these wonderful characters, to painfully humanize an icon, to see what happens next through the unspoiled eyes of an author who hasn't yet polished the backstory that we all now know so well.

But it's criminal that this book has lain in a drawer for 55 years. It's criminal that Lee's experience with writing and publishing caused her to quit after one book published and one unpublished. I am in despair about the books we could've read that she never wrote. She has such a voice, and such courage.

When the story of Watchman's discovery first broke, Tonja Carter seemed like the villain of the piece. But reading the book has changed my opinion of her. No matter what her personal motivations are, I think she's a kind of hero. This is a book that White America could not bear to read. Certainly not in 1958, and for too many, not now either. This book could not wait for Harper Lee to die; it is tragically current. Do not spend too much time bemoaning the losses of literary America. Get to work changing the injustices and inequalities that have persisted in plain sight before all of us for so many, many years.
posted by rikschell at 12:13 PM on July 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

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