To All Who Plan to Read or Have Read “Go Set a Watchman”:
“Go Set a Watchman” was Harper Lee’s first book, and first books are usually unpublishable, as was “Watchman.” While it has brilliant writing in patches, it has inconsistencies, improbable passages, repetitions, unnecessary divergences, too much back story, ramblings, boring passages, too much overwriting, and almost every error a new writer can make.
Tay Hohoff, an editor at Lippincott, saw promise in the work, saying the “spark of the true writer flashed in every line.” She urged Harper Lee to scrap “Watchman” and start all over, write a new book with an entirely different story. Hohoff saw Scout’s young voice, one of several back stories in “Watchman,” as the potential for a great book once it was rewritten, and, of course, the new book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is a classic, with good reason.
Harper Lee spent two years writing the new book, a frustrating experience for her. At one point she tossed the entire manuscript of “Mockingbird” out the window, and Hohoff had to rescue it.
Many readers of “Watchman” are surprised, shocked, and disappointed at the change in Atticus from a lawyer with great tolerance and understanding for the problems of southern blacks, and one who inspired many young people to go into law after reading “Mockingbird,” to a downright bigot in “Watchman.” They forget that Atticus is a made-up character. The bigoted Atticus in “Watchman” was considered unacceptable to the reading public. Once the book was rewritten, the bigoted Atticus was “killed off” and replaced by the Atticus we admire so much in “Mockingbird.”
All in the editing.
Think of what came out of the 294,000 word manuscript of “Look Homeward Angel” Thomas Wolfe submitted, once it was edited down to its present form by Maxwell Perkins, who cut out some 60,000 words.
Reading “Watchman” and what emerged by skillful editing from the corpse of “Watchman,” namely “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is a good lesson for all aspiring writers.
A good editor is a writer’s best friend.