is it ethical to read harper lee’s ‘go set a watchman’?
There’s a very good chance that Harper Lee never meant for you to read this book.
This is an important fact to bear in mind when considering cracking the spine of Go Set A Watchman, the “sequel” to Lee’s classic 55-year-old novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.
It is a fact that I didn’t know when I pre-ordered my copy of Go Set A Watchman several months ago. When I excitedly hit the Buy Now button, all I knew was what HarperCollins’ marketing department wanted me to know. I “knew” that it was long-lost, recently rediscovered, Lee’s first novel to be published in half a century. I knew that To Kill A Mockingbird was one of my favourite novels and that it’s film adaptation is, to date, the only film adaptation that manages to perfectly capture what it was to read the novel. I knew that if Watchman was even half as good, I wanted to read it.
What I didn’t know when I bought that copy was what had been going on behind the scenes, and that the knowledge I would subsequently gain would make me consider questions I hadn’t thought of ever before in my reading life.
What are the ethics of reading? It’s a short, simple question that is surprisingly more complicated than you’d think. Initially, I approached the question like Moses coming down off the mountain: a few simple, rigid rules that could be applied to any quandary. Thou shalt not steal books, even when it’s really easy to Google PDFs of your very expensive textbooks. The library has a copy. Though shalt not burn books. All knowledge is valid, even when you’re talking about a flagrantly prejudiced work, like Mein Kampf or Huckleberry Finn. Censorship is not the answer, especially when the questions are hard.
The process of constructing my system for ethical reading became more complicated once I allowed knowledge of the authors’ biographies to weigh in on my decision-making process. Although I’ve studied Barthes’ Death of the Author, I was reluctant to let go of my biographical interpretations when it came to selecting the novels, poetry, and plays I would entertain myself with in my down time. Learning that F. Scott Fitzgerald probably drove his wife Zelda crazy in order to plagiarise large chunks of her novel, Save the Waltz, for his own Tender Is the Night made it hard for me to read The Great Gatsby without fuming. I’ve always hated Ted Hughes because I think he was mean to his wife and my favourite poet, Sylvia Plath. I struggle with drawing a line between the author and their works.
Which is probably why I was unaware, when Watchman’s imminent publication was announced, of where Harper Lee was at in her life. Lee is famously reclusive, declining to give interviews, and has furiously defended her right to privacy since Mockingbird’s meteoric rise to fame following its initial publication in 1960. Lee even left New York in order to go back to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama and avoid the crowds clamouring for her next great work. I thought I understood that feeling, and wanted to respect the author’s wishes. I read To Kill a Mockingbird over and over again, and watched Gregory Peck pound the floorboards of the Maycomb Court House, and I left my love at that.
If I’d been keeping up, though, I probably would have been aware that Lee had a stroke a few years ago. That she was nearly deaf and nearly blind. And if I’d approached Mockingbird as an academic, rather than a fan, I might have known that Watchman was an early draft of the more famous, published final version. And maybe I would have known to what extent Lee really didn’t want the world to see her freshman effort.
Go Set a Watchman is, by all accounts, the novel that would become To Kill a Mockingbird, but despite what Harper Collins’ marketing team wants you to think, it is not another To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee is, in my humble, thoroughly-biased opinion, an excellent writer, and this shows through in Watchman, without a doubt. But the novel is not the classic that it would become; it is simply the first attempt.
Most academics consider first drafts, letters, personal diaries, and other scribbled ephemera fair game after their author has passed away. But Harper Lee is not dead. Harper Lee is alive, and from all accounts given by people who are not just out to make a ridiculous amount of money off it, in no state to approve the publication of Go Set A Watchman – or the next, also conveniently “rediscovered” novel that HarperCollins are probably already gearing up for. Although the temptation to pry might be great, maybe even have been enhanced by Lee’s tantalising silence, maybe this is one book that we simply don’t need to read.
What are your thoughts, Lipsters? Will you be reading Go Set a Watchman? If you’ve already read it, what did you think?