Thursday, July 30, 2015


I want to preface this post by saying that it is in no way a book review. I merely want to toss around a few personal opinions about the current Harper Lee controversy. I did some research and took a few notes to ensure that my information is accurate, and - wouldn't you know it? I lost all of the notes. So, what I'm writing is completely off the top of my head (so to speak).

I was initially extremely skeptical when I heard that Harper Lee - author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird - suddenly consented (at age 89) to the publication of a nearly forgotten manuscript that she had written over 60 years ago.

According to the publishing company HarperCollins, and Lee's attorney Tonja Carter, a "newly discovered novel" by Harper Lee would be published in July of this year.
Statements by Attorney Carter indicated that Harper Lee was ecstatic and very enthusiastic at the prospect of this "second" novel, entitled Go Set a Watchman, being published (it was published and released on July 14).

Let's have a little reality check:

According to Harper Lee's sister Alice (who passed away last November), the famed novelist had been deteriorating physically and mentally for years. After suffering a stroke, she was physically incapacitated and was also deaf and nearly blind.

It's bitterly ironic that the announcement of publication came shortly after Alice's death and while Harper Lee is conveniently wheelchair-bound in a nursing home.

Harper Lee in 2007

Money and greed are the foremost factors in the publication of Go Set A Watchman. It is an insult to Lee's reputation and an extremely outrageous ploy to take advantage of an incompetent old lady's former literary fame.

It's no secret that Harper Lee shunned publicity her entire life and had stated numerous times that she'd never write another book. Why the sudden change when she's 89?

Like many people, I initially knew very few facts about Go Set a Watchman. I thought it was some sort of legitimate sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.

In truth, Go Set a Watchman is a rough first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that Harper Lee wrote in the mid-1950's. It was deemed unsuitable for publication by the editors but became the foundation for To Kill a Mockingbird, which was eventually published in 1960.

Incidentally, the title Go Set a Watchman is taken from a Bible verse, Isaiah 21:6 - - "Go set a watchman and let him declare what he sees."

The novel To Kill a Mockingbird takes place during the Depression Era , when the protagonist Jean Louise Finch (known as "Scout") is a child in the fictitious town of Maycomb, Georgia. Go Set a Watchman takes place twenty years later, when Jean Louise is an adult and returns to Maycomb for a visit to her attorney father Atticus Finch.

The childhood scenes in Go Set a Watchman were only told in flashbacks. Harper Lee worked extremely hard with her editor Tay Hohoff to develop the flashbacks into an entire novel which eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ironically, To Kill a Mockingbird was initially intended to be a trilogy - and ideas from the rough draft of Go Set a Watchman were going to be incorporated into two future sequel novels. The plan never materialized.

To publish Go Set a Watchman in its raw, crude state is a grievous disservice to Harper Lee and a ripoff for the unsuspecting public. It's not a genuine novel, merely a hodgepodge of rudimentary ideas. In fact, the editor who first read it considered it to be a series of anecdotes - not a novel.

I love the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, and the 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck is one of my favorite movies.
I have no desire to read Go Set a Watchman. From the reviews I've seen, it's supposedly poorly written and a major disappointment. It's beyond the realms of imagination that Harper Lee would have wanted it published.

A few facts about Harper Lee:

Her name was Nelle Harper Lee  (Nelle from her grandmother's name - - Ellen spelled backwards). Harper Lee later dropped her first name because too many people mistakenly called her Nellie.

To Kill a Mockingbird was originally titled Atticus - after the character Atticus Finch in the book. Attius was the attorney father of Jean Louise (Scout) in the novel.

Harper Lee's real father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was a newspaper editor and an attorney.
He was, at least partially, the inspiration for the fictional Atticus Finch.

To Kill a Mockingbird was not a spontaneous or effortless literary endeavor. It took two and a half years of extremely hard work and endless rewrites before the novel was ready for publication. Harper Lee doubted her own talents, and once got so frustrated that she tossed the entire manuscript out the window into the snow.

Editor Tay Hohoff (Theresa Von Hohoff Torrey) worked very closely with Harper to help shape the book into an eventual masterpiece.

Writer Truman Capote was a close childhood friend of Harper Lee.  She incorporated him as Dill, one of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. An old rumor has long been circulating that Capote helped Harper write To Kill a Mockingbird - or that he wrote the novel himself. That is untrue and unfounded.

Harper Lee, in fact, helped Truman Capote do extensive research for his book In Cold Blood.
She also provided him with a very generous amount of notes, ideas, and suggestions. After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote discounted Harper by insisting that she merely did some "secretarial work."
When Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird, Truman Capote became jealous and they never spoke again.

Harper Lee never expected To Kill a Mockingbird to become so successful and she was never able to deal with her success. She once stated that it would have been much easier to deal with failure.

She also believed that once you're at the top, there's no where to go but down. The whirlwind of fame in the 1960's left her no time for writing. She later attempted numerous new projects but never followed through. Alcoholism and fear of success turned her into a recluse and a mystery. She never married, and relied largely on her sister Alice for companionship and care.

The last public interview she gave was in 1964. It's a shame that her twilight existence is now being tainted with the publication of Go Set a Watchman.

New post on my photo blog:
( surfers)



  1. You've knocked this whole business into perspective, Jon. I don't particularly want to read 'Watchman' though I dare say that curiosity may, just may, one day get the better of me. If I ever do I'll want to bear what you say in mind.
    Reminds me a bit of those interviews with Marlene Dietrich, clearly in an advanced stage of dotage, claiming that men are much more intelligent than women and, in fact, that it's been "scientifically proven"(!) that women's brains are only half the size of a man's. (I dare say that there are yet some people around who want to believe this claptrap anyway.)
    But your take on 'Watchman' is helpful, as is the Lee/Capote relationship which, of course, I was aware of but not that it had finished with T.C. going off in a huffy sulk.

    1. Thanks, Ray - there's a lot more that I wanted to say about all of this, but I feared that the post was getting too long. I had to skim over some things and abbreviate others. I think we all have an underlying urge to read "Watchman", but just keep in mind that it's merely a rough foundation for "Mockingbird" and not a companion piece.

      I've never heard of those interviews with Dietrich, but - from what you've revealed - it's clear that they never should have happened.

  2. The whole business does indeed appear to be very sordid and opportunistic, but by whom? Publishers? Distant family members? I shall not be reading it.

    1. I think the publishers and the attorney are the real culprits, because they initially misled the public and lied about Harper Lee's "enthusiastic" approval. Perhaps some greedy relatives are involved. It will be interesting to hear more.

  3. Jon, I enjoy reading many of your posts. This post in particular motivated me to comment. I too wondered why this book is now being published. Thanks for the information and perspective.
    Enjoy the weekend! Sam

    1. Sam, I' delighted that you enjoy reading my blog and I'm glad you decided to comment. I initially knew nothing about "Watchman" but the whole thing sounded fishy to me. Clearly someone is taking advantage of Harper Lee.

  4. Well written!
    I am sure it's some abuse of an editor. Harper Lee is practically incapacitated. I will read it at some point, but I thinks it's such a shame that this has happened.

    1. Thank you, Christina. I think we are all tempted to read it. I'm sure "Watchman" provides some insight into "Mockingbird", but it should be regarded only as a rough prelude. From what I've heard, it tends to greatly taint the purity of "Mockingbird."

  5. A keenly considered and well-composed analysis, Jon, and one I'm inclined to believe is accurate. We'll learn more about the the methods and motives of this unexpected publication or I miss my guess.

    1. I initially knew absolutely nothing about this, Geo, but I was very curious and skeptical. The more I learned, the more disillusioned I became. Since Harper Lee has always been sensitive and self-critical about her own literary worth, it seems highly unlikely that she'd agree to having an ancient preliminary draft published.

      From what I've heard, "Watchman" does provide some additional insight into "Mockingbird", but in my humble opinion it largely serves to taint and demean the purity of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

  6. I'd like to say I'm surprised by this business. Unfortunately, there's little that has that effect anymore. Color me, disgusted.
    Thank you for shedding light on this situation, Jon.

  7. Things have changed a heckuvalot from the good old days when editors and attorneys had some semblance of dignity and honor.

    Color me disgusted along with you.

  8. nope, not gonna read this "new" book. the original suits me just fine.

  9. The publishers should be ashamed of themselves, but nowadays publishers seem to be shameless.

  10. I'm glad that you think Harper Lee has been taken advantage of. Although I am sad that it happened, because it is indeed shocking and unfair. If she in her long life didn't want it published, I think that should have been respected. I have to confess I HAVE NEVER READ TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I somehow missed it when I was at school, and it's been on my "to read " list ever since. OK I will read it now. But I don't think I'll read the other one. I feel uncomfortable thinking about how it's not what she would have wanted to show. Not fair.

  11. I think I first read "Mockingbird" when I was about 17. I read it several other times and it hasn't lost its initial potency. The 1962 movie is as good as the book, but the novel provides more details.

  12. Never read Mockingbird. Or the Watchmen. Find your insights interesting to say the least.

  13. Jon,
    I read an article in Vanity Fair last year about some sleaze ball who took over her estate and was collecting all the royalties from "To Kill a Mockingbird." I believe this new book is just another way to squeeze money out of the excellent reputation of that book and Harper Lee. Thus I will not be buying or reading this book. J. D. Salinger ("Catcher in the Rye", a book I read when I was a teenager that I really liked) was a similar author who had tremendous success and then shunned the spotlight. I have yet to have my literary success (big smile).


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