‘Watchman’ inspires wonder, admiration, criticism among readers

With dread and delight, Georgians have been reading Harper Lee’s troubling new book, “Go Set a Watchman,” published Tuesday, and their reactions run the gamut.

Some said it shows the hand of the master. Others predict it will make Lee’s reputation slip.

After the book reached shelves on Tuesday, some readers postponed meals and stayed up late, reading it in one sitting. “I finished it within four and a half hours after it was in my hand,” said playwright Melita Easters.

Most were eager to see for themselves the reported transformation of lawyer Atticus Finch, a hero in Lee’s first book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird,” into a segregationist in “Watchman.”

Musician and freelance writer Rob Rushin, 56, said the change in Atticus was dispiriting. “This great iconic character of Atticus Finch all of a sudden falls to ashes, and it’s brutally painful to read it.”

Rushin, a former Atlantan now living in Tallahassee, Fla., said readers share a dilemma with protagonist Jean Louise Finch. Like her, we idolized Atticus, and we don’t want confront his flaws.

But that’s the real world, said children’s book author Sue Sehgal, of Sandy Springs. Born and raised in India, Sehgal said Americans tend to see issues — and personalities — in black and white, but most of us are nuanced. “The real world is made of shades of gray,” she said.

“The Atticus in ‘Mockingbird’ is who we wanted to be,” she said; the Atticus in “Watchman” is who we are.

Most readers were familiar with the book’s curious origins. Monroeville, Ala., native Nelle Harper Lee’s first effort at a novel was “Watchman,” set in the 1950s, featuring an adult Jean Louise Finch; it was rewritten to become “Mockingbird,” focusing on Jean Louise’s childhood from the 1930s.

The earlier manuscript was purportedly rediscovered last year. The announcement, in April, that Lee would publish a second novel hit the literary world like a thunderclap, provoking speculation about how a manuscript could be missing for 55 years.

According to her publishers, Lee insisted that “Watchman” be edited only “lightly” before publication, and it shows. Some descriptive passages are repeated word for word from “Mockingbird.”

But Fredda McDonald, of St. Simons, said Lee’s ability shows through. “It’s a testimony to Harper Lee as a writer that in its original form, unedited, this book is still so powerful.”

Jay Ricketts, 71, a retired attorney living in the Emory area, disagrees. The new book, he said, is dated, and shares the flippancy of an Andy Hardy movie.

Lippincott editor Tay Hohoff reportedly described Lee’s first effort as a “collection of anecdotes,” and Ricketts said that same description applies to this version of the book.

“Mockingbird” reportedly went through two years of revisions, and Ricketts suggested that those changes helped make the book a classic. That such editing is missing from “Watchman” is to its detriment, he said.

“This is going to be a tremendous opportunity for literary scholars to dissect the influence of the editing” on “Mockingbird,” he said. On the other hand, “I think her reputation is going to suffer, which raises the question about the circumstances of ‘Watchman’ being published.”

Harper Lee, now mostly blind and deaf and living in an assisted living facility in Monroeville, has been absent from the tumult surrounding the release of “Watchman.” She speaks through her lawyer Tonja B. Carter. Carter has also served as the intermediary between Lee and the publishers.

Concerns that Lee might have been an unwilling participant in the publishing of the book prompted an investigation by the state of Alabama, which determined that Lee was capable of making the decision on her own.

Still, Lee’s absence troubles Elizabeth Haynes, 71, a former social worker and bank teller and transplanted Californian. “I’m terribly skeptical about the whole way this thing has been uncovered,” she said. For that reason, and because she doesn’t want to see a rewrite of Atticus, she’s not going to read the new book.

“We all need heroes and too many of them are knocked off their pedestals,” she wrote in an email. “I do not want to see that happen to Atticus Finch.”

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