To Edit a Mockingbird

The controversy surrounding Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is really heating up, with fresh commentary appearing daily. These essays are becoming increasingly esoteric, tacking away from the more prosaic whodunit investigations to the deeper realms of literary criticism. And for you history buffs, there’s even a piece comparing Atticus Finch’s moral ambiguity to that of Big Jim Folsom, liberal governor of Alabama (who completed his second term just a year before the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird), and another equating Finch to historian Francis Butler Simkins (“an emancipated critic of the old order”). Everyone, it would seem, wants a piece of the action.

I’m an editor, and my interest is primarily technical. If Watchman is an amateurish draft of what ultimately evolved into Mockingbird (Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor at J. P. Lippincott, recalled, “[Go Set a Watchman] was more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”), why offer it to the public in its embryonic form? Indeed, if Ms. Lee believed she had a solid companion piece to Mockingbird in Watchman, why had she forsaken it? Speculation abounds, but the evidence strongly suggests the author never had any intention of publishing the earlier manifestation of the classic; there is ample reason to believe the decision to go ahead with the project was merely the product of what one critic cynically calls “the Harper Lee industrial complex.”

I think the gravitational pull of this “lost” manuscript is its very existence. It’s something akin to the discovery of a demo tape recorded by a now-famous musician. Hearing the music in its seminal form provides the kind of intimate connection with the artist and his process that’s so coveted by diehard fans. Imagine stumbling upon a mislaid recording of the Beatles before the raw material was treated to George Martin’s sophisticated “editing” skills: fascinating, but of little intrinsic value. Yet even basement tapes can be turned into cash cows through shrewd marketing. Of course the publishers spin it as being the author’s call: “It was made clear to us that Harper Lee wanted it published as it was. We gave the book a very light copy edit,” the literary equivalent of a dusting off. Note the weasel words: “It was made clear to us”—not the declarative, “Harper Lee told us.” This is particularly troubling when you consider we’re talking about a frail octogenarian who is allegedly not entirely lucid.

Granted, a close reading of both volumes augmented by insights about the author’s relationship with her lawyer/sister, agent, and editor yields a glimpse of the internal workings of the old-school publishing process, and (one would hope) illuminates the need for a competent editor. But casting Go Set a Watchman out into the world to stand on its own without subjecting it to the gentle ministrations of a developmental editor is truly a shame. How important is the collaboration of a talented editor? Lee’s agent, Maurice Crain, stated unequivocally: “Most good books are ones that have been a long time maturing, with a lot of cutting and fitting and replanning done along the way. MOCKINGBIRD, for instance, was about the most replanned and rewritten book I ever had a hand in, and it turned out finally that all the labor on it was well justified, and if the Lippincott editors hadn’t been so fussy and painstaking we wouldn’t have had nearly so good a book.”

Including the rough draft in a thorough biographical treatment of Harper Lee’s life and work (along the lines of the University of California Press’ monumental project, The Autobiography of Mark Twain) would have been a better use of the material. As it is, Go Set a Watchman is a fluke, a literary curio. It probably won’t resonate with fans of Mockingbird (and will more likely distress them), though lit profs will dissect it, analyze it, and juxtapose it to its famous sibling for generations to come.

I am not convinced this long-forgotten manuscript is some hidden gem, and I’m not alone. Surely, there was a reason it was shelved in the first place.

What are your thoughts? Is Go Set a Watchman a worthy contribution to Harper Lee’s legacy, or will it tarnish her reputation? Is it “a remarkable literary event,” a “masterpiece,” as HarperCollins proclaims, or a half-baked, tentative attempt at a novel that should never have seen the light of day?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him: Aden[at]LittleFireEditorial[dot]com.