The more I learn about the publication of the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, the more bothered I am. Not because Atticus Finch might be less of a hero and more of a racist. I can handle complexity and nuance. But this recent New York Times article tells another story.
This month also saw the posthumous publication of a new Dr. Seuss novel, What Pet Should I Get? I’m bothered by that as well. Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel, is a personal hero of mine. I can tell you exactly where I was the day he died. I was devastated, as I was hoping someday to meet the man who changed children’s literature forever. But he died in 1991, and it’s hard to get excited about a book that’s been released so many years after his death.
How do we know this is a book he wanted to publish? As this New York Times article points out, Geisel had many opportunities to send this book in to his publisher and he didn’t. But there are some huge differences between Seuss and Lee. Seuss published many, many books in his lifetime, some under other names, and this book is entirely consistent with other books he published. This may be crass commercialism at work, but it’s not going to change his name or his reputation. And, the publisher who pieced together his work is a woman who worked with him for 11 years.
Harper Lee is an entirely different matter. Lee REFUSED to publish another novel in her lifetime, despite the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. She guarded her work and her name carefully. In 2014, her sister Alice, the executor of her estate, passed away, meaning that someone else now decides what gets published. This manuscript was discovered in 2011, but when Alice Lee was alive she did not authorize its publication.
And here’s the other thing that bothers me: I can’t tell you how many times I hear Watchman described as a sequel to Mockingbird. It’s not. It’s an early draft, not a standalone novel. Lee submitted this draft, got editorial feedback, and changed it to produce the work we know and love. This book should have been released not as a “new novel” but as the early draft it is. In fairness, Harper Collins’ website explains this, but nothing about the cover or marketing of this book would tell you that.
I planned to read this book, but now I think I won’t. Like I said, I don’t mind seeing Atticus Finch in a different light. That’s interesting. I do mind this invasion of an author’s privacy and reputation. And the fact that she is alive but helpless to stop it bothers me most of all. Harper Collins is making a fortune on the sales of this book (which I’m sorry to say I contributed to). It just doesn’t feel right to me.