Orange County School of the Arts

The controversy of ‘Go Set a Watchman’

I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in third grade. Though I didn’t understand the full emotional content of the piece, I admired the skillful prose with witty humor and naturally flowing dialect. As I grew older, I came to appreciate the sheer courage that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a love letter to.

I’m clearly a “To Kill a Mockingbird” fan. But I am opposed to “Go Set a Watchman,” author Harper Lee’s new book.

Atticus defended Mr. Robbins, but faced tremendous stigma.

Some background: though “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, the so-called “sequel” was recently released. It has gained huge attention. Lee originally wrote “Go Set a Watchman” before “To Kill a Mockingbird”, but a publisher recommended she go back to those characters’ childhoods. Though Harper Lee received many awards for “To Kill a Mockingbird”, she hasn’t published anything since. Instead, Ms. Lee has been rather reclusive in her Alabama home.

“Go Set a Watchman” is the most pre-ordered book since the Harry Potter series. With 1.1 million copies sold, including the one I got for my birthday, “Go Set a Watchman” is clearly a commercial success. What readers discovered that was Atticus Finch, the noble and courageous lawyer to whom “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a love letter to, has become a racist. The man who fought against racism by volunteering to provide legal counsel to an innocent black man is now a KKK-meeting attending racist.

“Go Set a Watchman”

Yes, I was angry that I can no longer name my child Atticus, after the formerly flawless protagonist. But several critics have offered important interpretations on this; Dr. Osmudia R. James offers a particularly powerful critique.

But more importantly, it may not have been ethical for the novel to be published in the first place. Ms. Lee is a vision- and hearing-impaired stroke survivor who resides in assisted living. She hasn’t published anything for the past 55 years. Why is she jumping to it now? It could be the sadness after her sister Alice’s death; many visitors reported that Ms. Lee seem depressed. Some say she is mentally sharp, able to communicate and recite passages from literature. However, one visitor noted that:

“She seemed to be ‘in her own world’ at first [when asked about Go Set a Watchman], and asked, “’What novel?’” (here)

Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s caretaker and sister, commented that Harper “can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.” (May 12, 2011)

Lee receiving an award.

I’m not opposed to the new interpretations of Atticus’ character—these are extremely important comments on racial tensions in America, and it adds unmeasurable layers of importance. But I am opposed to what I see as greedy publishers taking advantage of an elderly woman.