Let me begin by thanking Amanda Sutton of Bookworks in Albuquerque for convening a panel on Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, and for asking me to take part. I am also grateful to the other panelists–Lisa Walden, Carolyn Flynn, and Hakim Bellamy. Walden is the manager of the University of New Mexico Bookstore, and Carolyn Flynn is a southern writer and longtime editor of women’s issues for the Albuquerque Journal. Bellamy is an accomplished poet and host of the local PBS series, Colores. He was the star of the panel because he played Tom Robinson in a recent local production of the play, To Kill a Mockingbird. A number of the audience members had seen the play and welcomed Bellamy with enthusiastic applause.
Like many thousands of other readers of my generation, and like all of those in the sizable audience for last night’s event, I have a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf for To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read the novel several times over the years, and I am grateful to the English teachers who taught the book to my sons, Corey and Devin. I made sure my sons saw the movie version of the book, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus.
That said, if not for the invitation from Amanda, and the complimentary copy of the book that came with it, I doubt I would have read Go Set a Watchman. My reasons for boycotting the book are likely consistent with yous, if you are curious but undecided:
In the first place, I couldn’t make heads or tails/tales of the title. It’s the imperative, which means I’m being told to do something. But what exactly? Go set a table, sure. Go set a trap, maybe. (I don’t advocate trapping defenseless animals, but right about now I’d love it if someone trapped that insufferable Donald Trump. Drag him out of my living room for a few days, will you, please?) Go set a watchman? What does that mean? I do know it’s a quote from the Bible, but that doesn’t make it self-explanatory or evocative, and a book title should be one or the other or both.
The circumstances surrounding the publication of Watchman are disturbing and disappointing. Like Margaret Mitchell, Lee seemed destined to be a one-book wonder. If Harper Lee had died before her sister Alice, Go Set a Watchman would never have seen print because Lee was adamant on the subject of a second novel: She didn’t intend to publish one.
The early reviews were negative, to say the least. Here’s the concluding paragraph from the NPR review by Maureen Corrigan:“The novel goes on sale Tuesday, and everybody who loves To Kill a Mockingbird is going to read it, no matter what I or any other reviewer says about its literary quality, the bizarre transformation of Atticus or its odd provenance. All I know for certain is that Go Set a Watchman is kind of a mess that will forever change the way we read a masterpiece.”
But here’s my take: Changing the way we read a masterpiece may be overdue. It may, in fact, be just what we need to undertake as individuals and as a culture. Perhaps the avarice of a lawyer named Tonya Carter and a publisher named Harper-Collins will serve us all in the end.
Stay tuned for Part Two.