Controlling the Narrative: Harper Lee and the Stakes of Scandal

By Emmett RensinAugust 14, 2015

Controlling the Narrative: Harper Lee and the Stakes of Scandal

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

There have been reports that HarperCollins is taking advantage of an elderly, frail woman in poor health. Did Harper Lee want this book published?

Not only has Harper Lee approved publication, but she is excited to see the book re-emerge after so many years.

— Frequently Asked Questions on The Publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, from publisher HarperCollins


IN THE WANING days of this long apocalypse, the doubt and the dread that have attended the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, we might pause to reflect on just what is being doubted, by whom, and to what end.

From the February 3 announcement that an unpublished novel by the author of To Kill a Mockingbird had been discovered in a safety deposit box, through July 14, when HarperCollins shipped one million preordered books to readers, the publisher has maintained that the 89-year-old author of To Kill a Mockingbird possesses something more than dim awareness of her new novel, that she is “excited” about its publication in a manner which reasonably approaches consent. Perhaps because five months of insistence did little to persuade those inclined to doubt this proposition, or perhaps because the particulars of that proposition changed in each of lawyer Tonja Carter’s retellings, HarperCollins included with review copies of the book an unusual document meant to formalize the faith, a kind of nervous catechism called Frequently Asked Questions on The Publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

Their story goes like this: In 1949, a precocious young woman from Monroeville, recently a graduate of Huntingdon College and, for one year, a law student at the University of Alabama, abandons Dixie for New York in order to become a writer. Within seven years she produces a novel, one incidentally about a precocious Southern girl in her late 20s, home for a visit after a long expatriation to the North. In January 1957 she gives that novel to her literary agent, Maurice Crain, who in turn sends it to Tay Hohoff, an editor at J.B. Lippincott. Ms. Hohoff elected not to publish it.

Q: Why was Go Set a Watchman rejected when it was first submitted to publishers?

Go Set a Watchman was not rejected.

Rather, we are told, it was set aside for a moment, held while Lee is encouraged to write an entirely different novel, one based on her protagonist’s childhood. The process takes years. When To Kill a Mockingbird is finally brought to market in 1960, it is met with hosannas. “Here is a storyteller justifying the novel as a form that transcends time and place,” writes Herbert Mitgang in The New York Times, who compares Lee to Carson McCullers. Lee wins the Pulitzer Prize; she wins the Presidential Medal of Freedom. There is a film, with Oscars to follow. Mockingbird sells 40 million copies, and Lee begins a half-century of retirement in Alabama. Go Set a Watchman is put in a drawer somewhere, lost, and eventually forgotten.

Fifty-seven years pass.


Q: What were the exact circumstances in which the manuscript was discovered?

[…] In August 2014, Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s friend and lawyer, discovered the manuscript in a safety deposit box at a secure location where valuable material related to the Harper Lee archive is kept. It was attached to a copy of the original manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Her lawyer found it. No. No. Her friend and lawyer, the catechism chides us.

In October the discovery was presented to Michael Morrison, the president of HarperCollins. Morrison took it home — and here the story seems to borrow from the wrong script, the one about an Undiscovered Genius — and he read it in a single night. He committed to buying it the next day, we learn, as if it were the sheer power of the work that underwrote the risk of such hasty commitment.

Q: Why did HarperCollins decide not to edit Go Set a Watchman?

… Harper Lee wanted to have the novel published exactly as it was written, without editorial intervention. As her publishers, we naturally respected her wishes.

Between October and January, terms were discussed. The announcement was made. The questions began and the answers prepared and now here we are in July, this “bold, moving, and utterly compelling” novel released to an eager public. It is “wonderfully evocative of another era and yet relevant to our own times.”

Q: Has Harper Lee read the manuscript since its rediscovery?

A: No, she has not. She asked other readers to and was happy to hear that all were in favor of publishing the book.


This is the HarperCollins side of things, this story about a woman fully in possession of her wits, this woman who is excited. This woman whose sister and protector died just before the manuscript was discovered, who is 89 and had a stroke last year but is still the same old Harper Lee. This woman who consented to the publication of a novel she has not read in 60 years, who nonetheless insisted it not be edited at all.

This story has naturally met with some skepticism. In July, The New Republic published a multipart essay by William Giraldi. Among his conclusions are that “the manuscript […] should never have been expensively packaged, gaudily hyped, unscrupulously employed as chum to lure lovers of Mockingbird.” Giraldi believes we know, in the “unignorable murmurs” of our guts that “something is rotten in Monroeville.”

Maureen Corrigan of National Public Radio, in a review called “Harper Lee’s ‘Watchman’ Is A Mess That Makes Us Reconsider A Masterpiece,” declared herself “suspicious” of the book.

The Concourse called its own review “Hey, You Don’t Have to Read Harper Lee’s New Book.”

Writing in The New York Times, Joe Nocera called it a fraud, recounting earlier reporting by the paper: Tonja Carter discovered the manuscript of Watchman earlier than she claims, she waited for Alice Lee to die, she cashed in, along with HarperCollins, when Harper Lee’s defenses were adequately compromised. “That HarperCollins decided […] to manufacture a phony literary event isn’t surprising,” he writes, “It’s just sad.”

You may by now have come to believe that these are the terms: HarperCollins with its official narrative vs. the arrayed forces of press integrity, unwilling to allow this outrage.

A battle to set the record straight. A battle for literature. A greedy monolith looking to squelch the truth that must be told, the sermon and the scandal, the long myth of PR men, always on message, and the newspapermen, always on their tails.

But we are not experiencing what is called a fight for control of the narrative, a fight wherein the ends of both parties depend upon the public verdict. HarperCollins neither expects nor requires the belief of magazine critics or especially critical readers; it never has. Indeed, to read Frequently Asked Questions is to be struck by nothing so much as its swagger, its undertones of the lawyers said we had to, the sense that we are dealing with a group basically amenable to the transaction the catechism implies. Don’t believe us? Well: the press can busy itself shouting. We can sell one million copies in the first week. That is HarperCollins’s stake in this. And fuck you too, they might add. The profit motive is simple enough.

But what then is the motive of the opposition, of these critics and readers committed to the proposition that this release constitutes a form of fraud, committed, moreover, to saying so with an energy not typically summoned in defense of American literary fiction? Their urgency stands out against the absence of a record truly in need of straightening. The narrative, after all, is not being seriously debated. Even the occasional positive review does not dispute the contention that Watchman is not an “autonomous novel,” much less a sequel, but a “literary artifact.” Others avoid the issue entirely. The world, or at least the section of the world that gives a damn either way, is already persuaded of a scandal. They always were.

Indeed that such an effort has been mounted to prove a point already accepted by more or less everyone who has bothered to consider the issue is the far more curious phenomenon. The disdain of this section of critics and readers has appeared reflexive, urgent — the conspiratorial chatter, the polemics, the treatment of the obvious as if it were a revelation, all of it like the practice of a culture with its fingers down its throat, a people not content to remark upon bad taste, or spit what still lingers in the mouth, but to throw it up entirely. They are committed to purging Watchman. Why?

This is what I want to talk about. What is their stake in all of this?


The novel is fine, by the way.

If reviewing this book were simple — that is, if I could write only about the book itself, as we and it related to one another in a vacuum, then that is what I’d write: It’s fine.

That is: it is not great. It is not even especially good. It is fine, unremarkable in merit and more significantly unremarkable in terms of the twee Southern heroism that made To Kill a Mockingbird a staple of so many English lessons. Some scenes add up and others don’t. Some dialogue can be believed, some can’t. Imagine a kind of second-rate American Jane Austen drama, a strong-willed young woman troubled by suitors and an ailing father — you have the sense of it now. In Mockingbird the townspeople are bigots; in Watchman Scout’s own family has the moral failing. Both books raise the issues. Neither investigates them much. But Mockingbird offers a tidy, moral resolution — Atticus Finch is a good man; he stands for justice and for what America should and can be. Watchman wanders on this point: Scout — now Jean Louise — essentially learns to treat her father as a human being, one with suspect views on race. He is proud of her for standing up to him. The moral status of integration remains murky. Scout leaves. Watchman is more complicated than Mockingbird, but it is no more complex.

In his New Republic essays Giraldi reports that Tay Hohoff called the book “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel,” that “there were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity.” This is more or less the shape of things. Despite lapses of prose quality — “With green envy, she watched Henry’s effortless mastery of the automobile. Cars are his servants, she thought” — the book is fine. It is better than quite a lot of novels published this year. It is worse than a great many others. “I thought it a pretty decent effort,” Lee is reported to have said. That is just about the shape of things, too.

I am telling you this because if we are considering the origin of this critical outrage, we ought to consider what might have happened had Go Set a Watchman been great. Would so many still have embraced the word fraud so readily?

The facts of Lee’s fitness would be the same. A feeble old lady is a feeble old lady whether she once wrote a great lost novel or a mediocre one. She chose not to publish it. Was this not the key issue as we were meant to understand it, the core of the ethical transgression? But I am certain above all other things pertaining to this scandal that were Go Set a Watchman the novel promised by HarperCollins, the world’s excessive concern over Lee’s state of mind would be the worry of an iconoclast. Who, after all, takes Max Brod, who published the manuscripts Kafka asked him to burn, to be a villain? Those novels didn’t belong to Kafka, that’s what we say about him, those novels belonged to everyone. What would we say differently in the case of a masterful Watchman? Kafka, at least, was explicit: Burn it all, Max. We are told Lee is on board. We are told Lee is “excited.” We may have good reason to doubt this report. But had it been a great book, we might have chosen to believe her.

Is the transgression then that Lee’s reputation was besmirched for a profit? That this is an insult to her legacy, one made especially vicious by the fact of her still being alive? Giraldi argues as much in New Republic, finding the publication of Hemingway’s True at First Light a similar but lesser insult, Hemingway having “been dead nearly four decades” when it appeared. But surely Lee is not the insulted party in the fraud scenario — if she is not fit to seriously consider whether or not to publish Watchman, she cannot be fit to notice its failure to impress, especially beyond the din of the millions sold. So, what? Are we insulted on her behalf? Is this what all of it comes down to?

We could tolerate this alleged abuse of a revered old lady if it weren’t so contrary to our own use of Harper Lee. She is not the injured party. We are defending our own honor here.


Why are we so aggrieved? What has been ruined by all of this? What was so precious in To Kill a Mockingbird?

“Shockingly,” Michiko Kakutani writes in her review of Watchman for the Times, “Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter: ‘Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?’”

Jezebel ran its review under the title “In Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Is a Racist Who’s Gone to a Klan Meeting.” That roughly sums up the origin of horror, expressed in reviews and rants and tweets and anguish; the thing which led The Guardian to wonder “what happens” to people named after the heroic lawyer. (One couple, son still young enough for a mulligan, elected to rename him Luke). Atticus Finch is a racist: Is not a goddamn thing holy? In this new age of complication, must we lose Atticus Finch too? A sequel set 20 years later wherein Atticus Finch has dealt poorly with Brown v. Board of Education. Even the hero of Maycomb is a racist now. Lee is made unbearably complicated by extension. Can we not have one simple, good thing? One writer of singular and pure intention? She imagined her hero this way all along?

“What are we — we readers and watchers and admirers of Atticus Finch as a father and a fighter, we who have embraced his heady symbolism, we who have named our children in his honor, we who have, finally, no say at all in his fictive fate — to make of that shift?” asks The Atlantic. “What are we to do upon learning that the man who was so stubborn in his sense of justice has chosen, in the end, to live on the wrong side of history?”

I am not proposing, however, that the matter is as simple as some not liking the direction Watchman goes with Atticus Finch, fictional character.

It has been pointed out after all that, as a matter of historical realism, none of this is terribly implausible. America at mid-century was full of men who believed themselves egalitarians until the moment someone told them just what racial comity would require — men who, finding themselves unable to dictate the terms of liberation, became, literally, reactionaries. There is a difference, after all, between protecting a black man from the lynch mob and protecting his children substandard educations; between the right to life and the right to liberty; between granting him humanity and granting him humanity commensurate with your own.

The Silent Majority was Atticus Finch. The Southern Strategy needed him. He sent Strom Thurmond to the Senate and gave rise to the notion of a Dixiecrat. None of this should surprise us. None of it does.

Rather, I am proposing that the corruption of Atticus, the spoiling of Lee and Mockingbird, threaten a central American myth, one we are inclined to defend.

That myth is a simple story: America has lost its innocence, but that’s okay, because some hero, some Lincoln or some Reagan or some Atticus, will bring it back.

A myth about redemption, not purity. This is the story we are enamored of, the story that must be true about America if we are to reconcile the ugly facts of its history with its present claims to excellence, the one that even for the American Left — so skeptical of our national character — must be maintained in order to make the project of reform worthwhile. We have achieved absolution before; we can do it again. It is the myth that we told after the Civil War, when we first became convinced that slavery was a sin worth penance and Lincoln told us how this war was a price paid in blood, how God would extract it until we had paid what was owed for practicing human bondage. It is the myth we have told to make sense of the genocide on this continent, of the ill effects of capital; it is the myth we embraced after the Cold War and McCarthy, after we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and after the war in Vietnam: The United States is imperfect. It did a bad thing. But it wasn’t malicious, just naive, and now greater men have renounced that past, and declared a new day.

To Kill a Mockingbird — through the character of Atticus Finch — is one of our most beloved representations of this myth, one which has, by its long introduction via the bloodstream of our schools, become near-universal, more aligned with American self-conception than perhaps any other work of American literature. In the 20th century, America — especially the American South — was still racist. Very racist. We admit it! We killed men for nothing more than the color of their skin. But thank God we solved it. Thank God the heroes and the courts came and after a long, hard fight brought our innocence back again. They would have killed Tom Robinson if Atticus hadn’t been there to save him. We would have kept on in our racism if Atticus hadn’t been there to save us.

This is what Watchman spoils. This is the poison the outrage wants to purge.

The scandal is not really about Lee or Tonja Carter or even HarperCollins, but our own sense of history. To Kill a Mockingbird must be unspoiled for some childish part of our memory to remain untouched. It should not surprise that those who have derided Watchman the most emphatically have been the ones most disposed to speak of Mockingbird in reverential terms. They are contrasting a holy book with the satanic verses.

In the Jezebel review, Jia Tolentino writes that readers, in the wake of Watchman, will now share in the adult Scout’s “nauseated bafflement, knowing that something you thought was irreproachable could fall victim to forces that will stay unknown.” But nausea is not the only response to unpleasant revelation, to psychic dissonance. Some react to disconcerting inconsistency with rage. The unsettling proposition is denounced, found wrong not only in fact but in virtue, the person who spoke it a liar who must be exposed and punished. To express rage is to ostracize the debaser and thereby shore up one’s fidelity to the prior truth.

When Watchman’s loudest critics cry fraud, they are not speaking of HarperCollins or of Lee’s exploitation. That some fraud may actually be afoot is only a happy accident; it makes everything much easier.

The imperfection of Atticus, the spoiling of Lee will — no matter our distaste — inevitably be absorbed into our understanding of these figures. The pure innocence of Maycomb, its simple justice, its egalitarian spirit, its place in the memories of almost each of us, between our hands as children — all of this is well on its way to being lost.

Cue the entrance of some new Atticus, arrived to take it back again.


Emmett Rensin is an author, essayist, and playwright, originally from Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Emmett Rensin is an essayist and contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Iowa City.


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