Can You Ethically Read Harper Lee’s ‘New’ Novel, ‘Go Set A Watchman?’
You’ve probably seen advertisements for Harper Lee’s ‘new’ novel, Go Set A Watchman. If you read and appreciated To Kill A Mockingbird, you may be looking forward to reading more of her writing. If you’ve been reading any of the news about the book, though, you may feel more conflicted.
Washington Post covered the controversy. In short, Harper Lee is in an Assisted Living care center, reportedly almost completely blind and deaf, and a very private person, who swore she’d never publish another book. However, Lee’s attorney found a copy of the old manuscript — more a first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird than a sequel — and says Lee is excited that it’s to be published.
There’s a good reason for suspicion that Ms. Lee, who suffered a stroke in 2007, may have been coerced or misled about the book’s publication. Lee’s own sister served as her attorney until her death, and it has been Lee’s new attorney who seems to have led in the publication of the new novel.
Of course, it’s impossible to know for certain what Harper Lee really knows, thinks, or feels about the novel — we have only what we know about her private personality and her earlier feelings about further publication, and what we’re told by those who work with her. There can be nothing but speculation. Perhaps she truly did delight in the notion of seeing her name atop bestseller lists once more in her lifetime. Perhaps she was pressured, or deceived. We’ll likely never know for certain.
The Guardian has the first chapter of the book, and Harper Lee’s fans are unlikely to recognize their beloved Scout in the grown-up Jean Louise. Recognizing Lee’s voice in the writing is hard, too. It comes through in places, but the chapter doesn’t feel anything like the originally published novel.
In short, if you buy this book, Harper Lee will benefit financially. So will her publishers, attorney, and editors. However, the writing in this older draft may affect her legacy, and there will always be that question: did she want me to read this?
What is the ethical decision? Each reader will have to evaluate his or her own desire to read the book, and what we know about Harper Lee’s feelings, and make that choice.