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    Why Harper Lee used the title To Set a Watchman & more on new book

    The announcement of the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which is both a sequel and prequel to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird, is a confirmation of William Faulkner’s famous statement:

    “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

    I was interviewed this morning on WJBC about the new novel and wanted to share more of my thoughts here. Harper Lee’s new novel is in fact an old novel. She wrote it prior to the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. The title is the first working title of the manuscript which would become To Kill a Mockingbird. Originally, Mockingbird was titled Go Set a Watchman. She later revised the book with the title Atticus, and then revised again to To Kill a Mockingbird. Charles Shield wrote about these books in his unofficial biography of Harper Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.

    What many commentators have overlooked (but the Birmingham News did not) is the Biblical reference in this new title. Go Set a Watchman comes from the King James translation of Isaiah 2:16:

    “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”

    As a writer who told Roy Newquist in 1964 that "all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama," Harper Lee is steeped in the Bible as is her character Miss Maudie, the cheerful neighbor who is a female mentor to Scout. But as the title of the new novel suggests, it may be a more darker novel than To Kill a Mockingbird since the reference in Isaiah to the watchman is about the prediction of the fall of Babylon. So, if Go Set a Watchman is set 20 years after the events of TKAM and features many of the same characters, the time period has changed. TKAM takes place in 1935 when Scout is 9. The sequel will take place in approximately 1955, when Scout is 29.

    The publisher said in the press release announcement:

    Scout (Jean Louise Finch) has returned to Maycomb from New York to visit her father, Atticus. She is forced to grapple with issues both personal and political as she tries to understand her father’s attitude toward society, and her own feelings about the place where she was born and spent her childhood.

    This means that Atticus, who was nearly 50 in TKAM, is now in his early 70s. It also means that Scout, who has been living in New York City, returns to her hometown of Maycomb. Between 1935 and 1955, the cultural and political landscape of the South has been transformed by the rise of the Civil Rights movement. For instance, in December 1955, Rosa Parks, under the guidance of Martin Luther King, Jr., initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Montgomery would be within a few hours of Maycomb (Monroeville). Alabama would continue to be a flashpoint in the Civil Rights era, a legacy that it is still coming to terms with.

    If this is a novel that was written before TKAM and is not as heavily edited, it may not be as strong a work. But very few novels are as wonderfully written as TKAM. Nevertheless, readers of TKAM will want to read the sequel and to see how characters such as Atticus, Scout, and others mature and change over time.

    The timing of the announcement of this novel probably has much to do with the recent death of Harper Lee’s older sister Alice who died in November 2014. Alice, who like their father, was a practicing lawyer until she was 103 years old. Alice served as Harper Lee’s lawyer and protector from unwanted publicity. The word was that the other books she was working on were lost in a burglary. 

    Alice later told a Chicago Tribune reporter that the book never got beyond the conceptual stage.

    It is clear that Harper Lee, like Boo Radley, did not want to be in the limelight, as she explained to Oprah. Alice, who Harper Lee called her ‘Atticus in a skirt,’ is no longer alive to protect Lee’s literary legacy.

    One of my favorite former professors when I was a student at Stamford University, was Wayne Flynt, who is aWayne Flint friend of Harper Lee. Flynt, an emeritus Auburn University professor, talks with her regularly. The Birmingham News interviewed Flynt yesterday and said that he saw her over the weekend. He described her as “quite lucid, because I was there talking with her.” He told NPR today that:

    Lee can still quote long passages of Shakespeare from memory and discuss the complete works of C.S. Lewis. She can still write and she reads voraciously, using a giant magnifying machine. He says Lee is hard of hearing but sound of mind.

    What  is certain is that she has been frail since her stroke in 2007, going deaf and blind. But Flynt reports that she is control of her faculties. So the questions of whether this is an exploitation of an aging writer seems to be unfounded based on Flynt’s observations.

    Update: An article in the Birmingham News on Feb. 5 by a reporter who interviewed several locals in Monroeville who know Harper Lee suggests that they think she was pressured into releasing the book. In an article from CBS Atlanta on Feb. 5, the reporter interviews a few more people and is not as conclusive. Clearly her lawyer is involved and encouraged Harper Lee to publish the book. Yet, I think that this book would probably have been published as soon as she died, so maybe it is better to get it out now while she is alive and can be cognizant of more appreciation.

    What makes the publication of Go Set a Watchman so fascinating is that it is like having Boo Radley come out of his house after all these years. 

    So 55 years after the publication of TKAM this sequel is a summons up from the past. Just like Scout, in this new novel readers of TKAM are drawn to return to Maycomb to see how the past measures with the present.



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    Reader Comments (2)

    Jan - Greetings from a flashpoint of the Civil Rights era. Enjoyed your look at this new-old book, even tho I've tried to stay as neutral and skeptical as possible about it. Unless it turns out to be as well-written as Mockingbird, I will remain reluctant to read it. For some reason I don't WANT to revisit these cherished characters. I love them just as I left them when I was 12 and in subsequent readings (can't even guess how many), poised on the threshold of an unknowable future.

    Wondering if Lee's short stories and other writings really were burgled. Smells a little fishy to me. What thinketh thou? And it doesn't make sense to me after researching her very difficult encounter with past fame that she would go back for more. Are you eager to read it? Why or why not? Inquiring minds, etc.

    Looking forward,

    February 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Duvall

    Thanks for posting Lynn. I will probably read it for many reasons. Since I teach To Kill a Mockingbird frequently, I do need to be up to date on research and related information about that book. Also, I think it will be interesting to see how Harper Lee edited and revised the manuscript. Writing is a difficult process, but it is always fascinating to see writers' drafts and their thought processes.

    February 5, 2015 | Registered CommenterJAS

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