Bourke's Bookshelf: ‘She was born color blind’
This week's featured read is "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee.
In 2015, the literary world was abuzz with news of an unpublished manuscript from famed “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee.
Widely considered an American classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, with 6-year-old Scout Finch telling the story of her attorney father Atticus and his fight to defend black man Tom Robinson from a rape charge against a white woman in the Deep South.
While many praised Lee for her talent and ingenuity, “To Kill a Mockingbird” would remain her only published novel for the next 55 years.
“Go Set a Watchman” was published in 2015, and the backstory is intriguing, as it was first thought to be a sequel of sorts to “To Kill a Mockingbird” but was later accepted as the first draft of the classic novel.
According to the publisher’s note at the end of the book, “Go Set a Watchman” was written in the mid-1950s and submitted to a number of publishers in 1957. One publisher expressed interest in seeing other work by Lee, and her agent sent what was described as her second novel, though much of that had been written prior to “Go Set a Watchman.” He said much of the childhood material in the work was appealing and might make for a more substantial book and a better start than “Go Set a Watchman.” That “second novel” full of happenings from Scout’s childhood would eventually become “To Kill a Mockingbird,” published in 1960.
The manuscript from Lee’s original novel was set aside and did not resurface until 2014, when her attorney discovered it in a bank vault in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
Lee agreed to submit the manuscript to HarperCollins, which published the book in 2015 as “Go Set a Watchman.” Apart from a light copyedit, the novel was published exactly as it was first written without any further intervention.
‘Go Set a Watchman’ by Harper Lee (2015)
Those familiar with “To Kill a Mockingbird” might have a sense of deja vu while reading “Go Set a Watchman.” Because the second novel is considered an earlier draft of the first, there are a few of the same passages in each one, mostly with regards to the founding of Maycomb.
Even writing this a week after I finished the book, I’m not entirely sure how I felt about it.
Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is a 26-year-old now living in New York but visiting her hometown of Maycomb, where she reunites with father Atticus, Aunt Alexandra and childhood sweetheart Henry. It’s the mid-1950s, and folks in the south are still reacting to the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that U.S. state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional.
A lot has changed at home since Jean Louise was a kid, and she realizes she doesn’t quite see eye-to-eye with her father and others in town on racial matters.
Her family’s former housekeeper Calpurnia will barely look at her when she visits, and a Citizen’s Council meeting her father attends shocks her to her core when a racist speech is given with no pushback.
Atticus is the one person Jean Louise has looked up to her entire life, but now she can’t even bear the sight of him — or of Henry, who still thinks she’ll marry him some day.
Confusion, frustration and hatred sink in as Jean Louise tries to figure out how her loved ones have gone so far off the rails and why she never saw it before.
While I wouldn’t necessarily say I disliked “Go Set a Watchman,” I think I might have been happier off just stopping at “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at
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