Exploring Books: The Watchman Arrives

Originally published in DeSoto Magazine, August 2015. Story and Photography by Mary Ann DeSantis.

More than five decades after her beloved novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published, Harper Lee strikes another chord for tolerance and justice with “Go Set a Watchman.”

Fans of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” have waited 55 years for another book by Alabama writer Harper Lee. In July, the wait was over when two million copies of “Go Set a Watchman” hit bookstores around the world.

Go Set a Watchman“The release of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ has to be the publication event of the century,” says Dr. Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University and considered a leading scholar on Lee and “Mockingbird.” He has also been a personal friend of the writer since the 1990s and calls her by her given name of Nelle.

“The ultimate irony is the reverse chronology of the books,” says Flynt. “When I told Nelle how anxious everyone was about her new book, she said to me ‘that’s not my new book; that’s my old book’.”

When publisher Harper Collins announced the book’s release date, many others indeed believed it was a sequel to “Mockingbird.” However, “Watchman” was actually Lee’s first novel.

Security around the book was unprecedented in the publishing world since the manuscript, supposedly lost for decades, was found in 2014. Very few people received advance copies and then only a couple of days before the release date.

When the first copies did arrive in town to be presented to Lee by her agent, the vibe around Monroeville could not be missed. The iconic redbrick courthouse — made famous in the 1962 movie — was abuzz with a PBS documentary crew, journalists, tourists, and locals who all had the same question: Why did five decades pass before another Harper Lee book appeared?

In 1957, Lee’s original editor asked for a rewrite of “Go Set a Watchman” from the point of view of Scout as a child and for a different name; thus, “To Kill a Mockingbird” was born after two years of revisions. The original “Watchman” manuscript was lost — even Lee herself thought it was gone forever.

Reading

The “Celebration of Reading” sculpture on the historic courthouse grounds is popular with tourists and locals.

Her current literary agent, Andrew Nurnberg, said in a recent recorded interview with Alabama’s Director of Tourism Lee Sentell that the Watchman manuscript was discovered last September underneath an early “Mockingbird” manuscript in a box secured by rubber bands. Nurnberg said the novel was completely finished and needed only a light copy edit. When Nurnberg asked Lee for permission to publish it, she told him to go ahead if he thought people would read it.

Fans pre-ordered the book by the thousands, including nearly 10,000 commemorative copies from Monroeville’s own Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe. They also journeyed into Lee’s hometown to be a part of publishing history and soak up the literary lore surrounding Monroeville, thinly disguised as the fictional town of Maycomb in both of Lee’s books. The bookstore’s watch party began at midnight on July 14, the date of the book’s release, and round-the-clock readings were held at the Historic Monroe County Courthouse, which for years has been a museum honoring Lee.

The title of the new book comes from Isaiah 21:6 in the King James Bible, in which the Prophet Isaiah predicts the fall of Babylon. Lee loved the elegance of the language in the King James version, according to Flynt, and she may have been comparing Maycomb to Babylon.

“Somebody needed to be the watchman ‒ the moral compass ‒ of the town,” he says, “and for Scout that was her father, Atticus Finch.”

In “Watchman,” a grown-up Scout returns from New York City to Maycomb, where she encounters the turbulent racial events and civil unrest that affected Alabama during the 1950s. She confronts her father and boyfriend about the racial injustices still occurring two decades after Tom Robinson’s unfair trial and tragic death in “Mockingbird,” which took place during the Great Depression.

Lee, now 89 and suffering from macular degeneration and hearing loss, has declined interviews since 1964 and is rarely seen out and about in Monroeville.

“Nelle is an intensely private person,” says Flynt. “She socializes with a narrow circle of friends that she has chosen.”

Flynt says the newly released book will not change Lee’s life significantly, but it may show that America needs to revisit the pivotal racial events of the 50s. “We didn’t solve those problems, after all,” he says.

MONROEVILLE:  Alabama’s Literary Capital Monroeville in southwest Alabama looks like any other small Southern town until you see the dome of the Historic Monroe County Courthouse, built in 1903. Fans of “To Kill a Mockingbird” instantly recognize the structure, not only from the book but also from the 1962 Academy Award-winning movie starring Gregory Peck as lawyer Atticus Finch.

Old Courthouse

Historic Monroe County Courthouse in Monroeville.

The town has capitalized on its fame as the real-life Maycomb and as the birthplace of Harper Lee and the summer home of her childhood friend, Truman Capote, who also grew up to be a well-known author. Born a generation behind them was award-winning novelist Mark Childress, who wrote “Crazy in Alabama” and “One Mississippi.” Each spring the Monroe County Heritage Museum, which is housed in the courthouse, presents sell-out performances of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the historic courtroom. Thousands of fans from around the world visit the museum throughout the year and then take guided walking tours around the town that bills itself as “the literary capital of Alabama.” For information on events, visit www.discovermonroeville.com.

 


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