In Memoriam: Harper Lee

A while back, when Go Set A Watchman was announced and given a release date, I wrote a short commentary on how Harper Lee’s deteriorating health made me highly sceptical of the technicalities behind Go Set A Watchman being “found” (as that is how the publicists are choosing to sell it). Sadly Harper Lee has now passed, and while this is a great loss to us all, I can’t help but wonder what will happen in the aftermath of this.

Harper Lee was a great writer – there’s no contesting that. She knew how to artfully construct a story so that what could have been a mundane story ended up inspiring generations of readers and writers. In the hands of any other writer, the story of To Kill a Mocking Bird could have been quite a bit less enticing: a plain story about law and racism in the south. I shiver to think what Raymond Carver would have done with that same story. It’s no surprise then that Go Set a Watchman, so far the second book published under Harper Lee’s name, is garnering overall positive reviews. She is without a doubt a brilliant storyteller.

But let me emphasise again that this is the second book so far published under her name. The history of Go Set a Watchman is that the original draft of it was completed long before that of To Kill a Mockingbird, but that over the years after Mockingbird Lee revisited it several times – to be honest, who wouldn’t want to delve back into that world ever now and then. And since she was a great writer, it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if Harper Lee wrote or at least imagine many different stories before her health took a toll on her ability to dream up new worlds. What I imagine the publicists will say, if they do choose to profit off of what Harper Lee wrote, is that Lee pulled a similar stint to Emily Dickinson; that is to say, she wrote much during her life but never sought to get it published, for personal reasons. These notes will slowly find their way into print, but again, much in Dickinson’s stead, it would come as no surprise to most if the publicists heavily edited these scraps to make them palatable to the public – to the point where single sentences written on napkins may turn into entire poems or 400 short stories.

Personally, I think it would have been kinder to Lee to have never published Go Set a Watchman. She didn’t try to publish it when she was in her right mind, and it’s cruel to have published it without her approval. She will, like all great writers, be remembered by her work. Watchman is not her work. She shunned it, and I have no doubt that she would have disliked the edited form that was published. Any future “findings” from her home that are published are not her work either. Her work will only ever be Mockingbird, and that bittersweetness of such a short canon is something that we will all have to accept, much like Lee did herself.

RIP Harper Lee: 1926-2016

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