To Kill . . . a Watchman?

As a writer, it’s been interesting to watch the controversy over the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the novel Harper Lee wrote and then substantially rewrote as To Kill A Mockingbird. Most notable have been the many cries of outrage that the novel not be published, lest it somehow tarnish Ms. Lee’s reputation, or that of Mockingbird’s.

I don’t quite understand the reasoning of the latter – books stand on their own merit, no matter what else the writer has done or even the sources that they come from. But the idea that other work might debase a writer’s reputation is intriguing. It seems to come from a very Romantic (cap intended) notion of author as artiste, the same idea that would lead a poet of Coolidge’s era to burn all but a few select poems.

I suppose none of us want to be known for what we produce on our bad days. On the other hand, neither we nor our contemporaries are necessarily in the best position to judge what posterity will think of any of our work.

A subset of reactions give ample due to the editor who worked with her on Mockingbird. But few of them – I’m sure there must be a few, though I haven’t seen any – acknowledge that at least some of the editor’s suggestions might have been questionable, or at least more in line with her own perceptions than that of the author. Mockingbird is not only far more polished than Watchman; it is also considerably more palatable to the era’s book buying public. That’s a product of many choices, but most especially the decision to use a very young heroine as the narrator and to make her father Atticus Finch into a very, very uncomplicated hero. You have to wonder what a different editor in a different time might advised.

I’d guess that a more polished version of Watchman wouldn’t have been nearly so well received at the time. But now?

I will say one thing: it’s great to see an author and a book generate so much interest and veneration. Maybe books and literacy aren’t dead yet.

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