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Flouted contracts, frenzied fans: Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman releases

Sneha Vakharia | Updated on: 16 July 2015, 4:11 IST

It's the kind of release that involves The New York Times flouting a worldwide embargo, just to get a step ahead. The kind of release where The Guardian orchestrates a book reading by an Oscar winning actress.

And worst, the kind of release that results in the brutal decimation of a human rights icon.

The fall of a hero

Forty-eight summers ago Harper Lee penned Go Set a Watchman. Her editor suggested that she rewrite the book - but from the perspective of a younger Scout.

So she did. And that's how To Kill a Mockingbird came about.

Released in 1961, Mockingbird became an instant bestseller and has sold over 40 million copies to date. It won Lee the Pulitzer in 1961 and came to be known as the 'National Novel', a testament to the racially partisan America that was. In a 2008 poll, it was voted the greatest novel of all time.

A fictitious Atticus Finch, Scout's father and lawyer of a black man falsely accused of rape, became a symbol of the progressive forces of humanity and reason. In Monroeville, Lee's hometown, The Alabama Bar Association erected a monument to him.

Atticus left the realm of fiction to become the lawyer even law must aspire towards. He was the stalwart of civil rights that the world deserved.

And then the New York Times, flouting a legal embargo, released a book review of Go Set a Watchman, the Mockingbird prequel, two days before the release.

It is a review that destroys every perception we carried of Atticus Finch as the most honourable of men.

Go Set a Watchman, it seems, tells us that Atticus Finch, the Atticus Finch who was for decades the flag bearer for empathy and righteousness, eventually became a racist and a bigot.

The pre-release

Scheduled to release today, July 14, the book has - not unexpectedly - already been mired in controversy. The New York Times published a disturbing account of how the manuscript of the Watchman was discovered and how Lee - who currently lives in an assisted living facility in Monroeville, Alabama, may not have granted permission to publish it. Mashable , in turn, reported the possibility of a third book hidden away in a safe-deposit box.

Four days before the release, on July 10, The Guardian and Wall Street Journal published the first chapter. The Guardian even had Reese Witherspoon read the Watchman audiobook. Presumably because a book about Alabama must have a voice from Sweet Home Alabama.

The trailer of Hey Boo, a 2010 documentary on Harper Lee and her classic book

The first chapter revealed tantalising details (spoiler alert). Scout is now 26 years old and disillusioned with the politics of her hometown, Maycomb, Alabama. She is returning to visit her widowed father, Atticus, now ailing with arthritis. Her brother Jem is dead. She is involved with a young man named Henry, but has chosen not to marry him.

Two million copies of Go Set a Watchman will hit bookstores in 70 countries on Tuesday, announcing that reading is alive and well

The adult Scout is feisty, empowered, and retains all the goodness and fairness her father had imparted to her.

So far so good.

What's happening today

To start, people who have proclaimed the death of books and reading in general are feeling a little foolish.

This is the most preordered book in the history of HarperCollins, and the most preordered book of 2015 so far on Amazon (the closest competitor is J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 8 years ago). The initial print run, HarperCollins has said, is two million copies.

There are talks, readings, events, interviews, personal essays, previews and conversations lined up.

There are film screenings and midnight openings and Southern food festivals.

There are rumours, speculation, devastated previews and calming analyses.

There are complex logistics at work to ship millions of copies simultaneously to 70 countries around the world under the kind of security presidents are familiar with.

There are booksellers making hay as sales of the original skyrocket - up 6,600% since the announcement of Watchman, it is believed.

There are confessionals as all manner of readers confess they never actually got around to reading Mockingbird.

There are photographs of Gregory Peck - who played Atticus Finch in the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird - everywhere.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the trailer of 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird film

There's a livestream of a reading done by actress Mary Badham - who played Scout in the same film - slated for Tuesday evening in Manhattan.

There are epic celebrations planned in Monroeville, the Alabama town that inspired the book's fictional setting of Maycomb starting midnight.

And that's not even taking into account the internet, with its vast capacity for obsession. There are anecdotes from readers, curated posts by websites, personal stories of what the book has meant to readers globally.

There is, of course, a BuzzFeed quiz to identify which To Kill a Mockingbird character you are.

Above all, there is the flouting of an embargo by no less than The New York Times that has caused a frenzy of discussion in drawing rooms around the world.

The New York Times review

On July 12, two days before the release of the book, The New York Times published a book review of Go Set a Watchman. This, in spite of being contractually obliged not to. It is being reported that the NYT will pay a penalty of up to USD 2,50,000 as a result of this.

The review itself was harsh, and disillusioning.

In the review, Michiko Kakutani wrote that Watchman lacks the 'lyricism' of Mockingbird. She calls it a 'lumpy' read and expressed amazement that this was the first draft of what later became a literary classic.

That's not necessarily surprising. A first draft is necessarily inferior to the final product. But there was more bad news. The review reveals that Lee's Atticus Finch eventually becomes a racist.

How racist? Well, this Atticus, for he is nothing like the Atticus we know, attends Ku Klux Klan meetings. He believes in racial segregation and spouts heartless diatribe.

"Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters?" he asks. "Do you want them in our world?"

Scout is not the only one confused about this dramatic change in Atticus's outlook. Readers of the review, fierce loyalists of Mockingbird and those awaiting their pre-ordered copies of Watchman are battling it out as they debate what went wrong with Atticus.

What hasn't changed

In many ways, the book, like its predecessor, is a plea to inspire empathy.

In the case of Mockingbird, the plea was to empathise with the predicament of the unrepresented black American. To lend our hearts to those who must bear great injustices, as well as to the outnumbered others who fight those injustices.

In Watchman, Lee pleads with her reader to empathise with the racist instead. The racist who, in spite of his best intentions (for his intentions are still above reproach) finds himself falling prey to the hateful, troubling propaganda of his time.

How much empathy readers are capable of - for a beloved author and her revered character - only the next few weeks will tell.

First published: 14 July 2015, 3:43 IST
Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia

A Beyonce-loving feminist who writes about literature and lifestyle at Catch, Sneha is a fan of limericks, sonnets, pantoums and anything that rhymes. She loves economics and music, and has found a happy profession in neither. When not being consumed by the great novels of drama and tragedy, she pays the world back with poems of nostalgia, journals of heartbreak and critiques of the comfortable.