Was it worth waiting 60 years to read Harper Lee's debut novel, 'Go Set a Watchman?'


After months of heated debate, controversy, questions about the ethics of elder care and publishing – not to mention some anticipation – Harper Lee’s second (albeit chronologically first) novel Go Set a Watchman has been published, more than half a century after her debut To Kill a Mockingbird became a publishing sensation and wowed audiences with 40m copies sold worldwide.

So was it worth the wait?

“It’s a first novel, it’s very much a first novel,” Eileen Battersby, the award-winning literary editor of the Irish Times told Pat Kenny earlier today, having stayed up all night and ploughed through the book. “As a first novel it is not an exceptional first novel at all, it’s an interesting first novel from someone who went on to write a very, very good first novel.”

As Battersby explained to Pat, what is most striking about poring one’s way through the pages of Go Set a Watchman, it becomes clear how important Harper Lee’s relationship was with her editor. Coming out of the American South, with its rich literary heritage of producing some of the finest writers the US has ever seen published, Go Set a Watchman shows that a good editor can help an author to find the gem – and the Jem and Scout – hidden in the early drafts.

“Harper Lee submitted it in 1957, it was turned down. But she was very lucky with the fact, I suppose it was a sign of the times in the 50s, that an editor was thinking, ‘Well, there’s good stuff in this, go back and try again.’ Instead of just being dismissed outright,” Eileen said.

“But then again, put into context, out of the 1950s came an incredible wealth of southern writing, it would be a very foolish editor who would turn down any manuscript coming from a writer from the South. Particularly a woman. Particularly a woman that was writing a book that was going to attack racism. That to me is interesting.”

Considerable controversy has surrounded the publication of this new novel, but considerable mystery and intrigue surrounds its very existence as well; what we know is that the manuscript to both books had remained locked in the legal office of Harper Lee’s older sister, Alice, until the latter’s death late last year. Now it has finally been published, to the sort of celebrity literary fanfare not seen since the last of the Harry Potter series was published. But like that series of children’s books, will the story endure as much as To Kill a Mockingbird? Will Go Set a Watchman be making its way on to the book list of children heading back to school in August?

“This is a book that you won’t read out to children,” Eileen told Pat. “To Kill a Mockingbird has a universal appeal, you can read it from 6 to 7 to 110, if you want. It is the book for everybody, it has this huge appeal. It has that unique thing that some books has, like Black Beauty has it, Treasure IslandKidnapped!,The Adventures of Tom SawyerThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

“But this book, Go Set a Watchman, is not one children are going to be taught in schools. And that’s quite crucial in the context of that they’ve achieved with Harper Lee, her enduring legacy. I don’t begrudge an 89-year-old woman who’s delighted she got her first book published, who’s vindicated as a writer. At the same time, I’d rather people went out and bought To Kill a Mockingbird today instead of buying this book.”

So it’s a bit more Go Set a Watchman than go get ‘a Watchman.

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